Looking Back With A Different Perspective
The oldest known photograph of a human being is of a man getting his boots cleaned on a street in Paris, France, in 1838. In the eerie, black and white photo, the two silhouette-like figures look lonely on the deserted street. It turns out that the photograph is deceptive, however. The street in Paris that day was not deserted, it was bustling with horse drawn carriages and pedestrians. Since the photo was taken by a primitive piece of equipment called a daguerreotype, the people and carriages were moving too fast to register on the camera’s plate. The shoe cleaner and his customer are visible only because they were not moving when the photo was taken.
Remembering the past with fond nostalgia is something that we all indulge in from time to time. We remember the good old days when families were wholesome and healthy, when our churches were above reproach, when our country was a beacon of light, led by morally upright men. Like the photograph taken on that Paris street, however, our memories of the past do not always reveal reality – they only reveal the pieces of reality that we were exposed to at the time.
Over the past couple of decades, as technology has made information available at faster rates and to wider audiences, we are all being exposed to information about the past that was previously either unavailable, available to only a few people or kept deliberately hidden. How many families in the past suffered from the effects of problems that they did not have the information to identify – or, if they could identify their problems, hid them out of fear of being rejected? Looking back, I think most adults today can identify mental illnesses, eating disorders, addictions and domestic violence in their families or communities that was either hidden, misunderstood or ignored way back when.
When I was a teenager, one of my closest friends had a terrible secret that she hid for years. Although I saw signs that something was wrong, I was too afraid of losing her friendship to ask too many questions. I did not understand her frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, or why she got “the stomach flu” so often. On more than a few occasions, I saw packages of laxatives in her purse. I was concerned, but told myself it was none of my business. Back then, information about eating disorders was not widely available. It was years before I heard the term, “bulimia”, and by then, the disease had already taken a cruel toll on my friend’s health.
One of the most popular scripture quotes on truth is found in John 8:13, when Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The truth does, indeed, have enormous power to free us from the bonds of secrecy and suffering, but the process of uncovering the truth, and dealing with it often shatters our illusions and is very painful.
Over the past few decades, our society has had to deal with many unpleasant facts that have emerged about the past we all thought we knew so well. Christopher Columbus was not the man our legends made him out to be, John Kennedy’s Camelot was riddled with ugly secrets, and the Catholic Church was left staggering under the weight of decades of sexual-abuse charges. More recently, some of our most trusted and talented public figures have been accused of transgressions ranging from abuse of power to rape.
Dragging these issues out into the light of day is a contentious process for those involved, and dealing with them is painful for all of us. Perhaps some of the pain stems from putting flawed human beings on pedestals way too tall. The higher a person is elevated above others, the more people he or she will hurt when he or she falls from grace. Surely, we can love people without idolizing them and respect our institutions without worshipping them. Maybe one day, we will all be able to look back on our shared history with the mature and compassionate love that it deserves – fully aware of its grave flaws, but still awestruck by its beauty.