Of Guilt and Past

How far back are we willing to go before we dispense with the guilt?

Among the many infographics, memes, and articles outlining the sins of America, a new one popped into my view that displayed for those willing to take part in the guilt as to which indigenous lands we live on. I did not look at this graphic with any depth — there was no need. The fact was that after England and the other European nations landed in the Americas, they participated in many campaigns designed to flush natives from their lands and take them over. Classic imperial colonialism… amiright?

Examining the past from the lofty perch I reside, it is easy to see that the colonialism was clearly wrong. That taking the lands from those who lived there first was immoral. But then again, how far back do I want to examine this trend? And then, how much do I (or we) truly understand from our positions? Do we really know the choices that were available to those participating in the history of the past?

History shows much in how the human world was shaped and reshaped by wars, conflicts, natural events, and more. Nations rise and fall, peoples are driven from their homes, and still more are enslaved or murdered. It is an ugly, wretched view. So how far back? Are we only going back to the 1600s and to the transatlantic slave trade? Or back to the beginnings of the Spanish conquistadors? Or do we go back to the Middle Ages, when Europe was in constant upheaval? Or Muhammad’s conquest of the Middle East? How about during the Roman Empire and the Celtic Holocaust?

Similar to these events, Native American histories show similar times of war, where people killed one another and lands changed hands — most often violently. It is arguable that there are few human cultures that weren’t embroiled in these activities at some historical time of their existence.

Humanity is complicated. We tend to forget that much like our time, it would be stupid to assume that events of the past were cut-and-dry simplistic tales. They were just as complex — maybe more so or even less so — as current times. Like the idiot on the couch on Monday morning critiquing the events of the prior day’s football game with absolute clarity on what should have been done or not done — without having the experience of being on the field during the game and aided with the full results of what each decision yielded — we look at history with our own preconceptions, all guided by our modern sensibilities and the full lessons of what choices in the past have wrought. 

We shouldn’t feel guilty for the choices that groups to which we belong to have made in history. The past is but memory; it is gone. There is nothing that can change it. Only the whispers of things left behind from a small piece of it remain to which we can only hope to interpret correctly. And again, trying to make amends, or provide reparations for events, can get ugly and complicated very fast. Again, how far back are we willing to go and to whom do we owe? Our current world is built both upon the great things done in history and the terrible things. Change any event, good or bad, and we do not know how that will alter the course of what had transpired since. 

Why do we feel so guilty, though? Or why is it that others insist we should? Partly it has to do with how today’s societies are all built from history. We know that groups both excelling and suffering each have their existence to thank on the choices made in the past.

Even as we might participate in the systems that were built — rightly or wrongly — on the institution that is history, we should not feel guilty for their existence. Perhaps in some ways the continued existence of institutions is a problem, but lamenting their existence is unhelpful. Cataloging the pains of the past is futile. What we do now is all that matters. How we behave now is what should make the difference. The past is the past. What has transpired is unchangeable. However, if we move forward, not trying in vain to right the wrongs of the past, but rather make right of the present, we can make a difference.

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