humbled by history

I’m in Virginia for work this week, and had an afternoon to myself in DC when I arrived. I knew I wanted to eat some seafood and see the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial while here, so I set off from the airport in the general direction of Washington DC. I say general direction because my GPS system is faulty, my internal maps are highly dyslexic, at best, and the sign said “Airport Exit”. After a couple of hours meandering through the state of Virginia, I found our Capital City right in the midst of rush hour. Have you ever driven in Washington DC during the afternoon rush? I imagine it’s akin to navigating a Fiat against the running of the bulls in Pamploma. I nearly took out at least one pedestrian (Right of way, as it turns out, is determined as liberally as fiscal policy is here.), made no fewer than 5 U-turns, and somehow managed to miss the White House despite being on both 16th street and Pennsylvania Ave multiple times. I made my way to a restaurant in Georgetown called The Tackle Box and decided to camp out until either traffic cleared out, or I ran out of change for the parking meter, whichever came first.

After tilapia and sweet potato fries, I checked out a couple of stores and ran out of parking meter money. Time to go. I headed toward the Mall, circled Madison Ave a couple of times, found parking across from the Smithsonian Castle, and set out to find MLK, Jr.. Roughly two miles in heels later, I found him. The monument really is impressive. Against the backdrop of the water, a full moon, and incredible history, the Reverend really blew me away. If you’ve been to the Vietnam War Memorial, you’ll remember the names etched into the wall. King’s memorial is similar, but quotes fill the wall surrounding his. I wrote down the ones that made the greatest impression on me.

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“It is not enough to say, ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace.”

Reading those words, being in that place, surrounded by memorials to some of the most important people and events in the history of our country reminded me why I studied history in college. History reminds me that I am part of something so much greater, more expansive, more important than just myself. It took the words and beliefs and pro-action of millions of individual people to create this big, big world in which we are somehow all connected. The study of history will mortally wound the arrogance of people who really take the time to listen to it. You cannot read the words of true public servants, warriors for social justice, and peacemakers and continue to be impressed with or worried about yourself. I can’t. History is so incredibly humbling, and so incredibly motivating. The people we study DID SOMETHING. History tells me, “You’re not as great as think yourself to be. Now, go do something great.”

In a culture that teaches us to be so incredibly self obsessed, as if we needed any help, history gives us context. History is where we come from, and we do not exist apart from that. So, today, history’s challenge to me is the challenge I give to you. You are not as great as you think yourself to be. Now, go do something great.

Shanti and Shalom

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