Hindsight is… (A Little Meditation on Human Memory for the Week of Easter)
Hindsight is always in HD, isn’t it? Memory filters out so much of the material— whether fact or opinion—which seemed important, so right at the time, but later is revealed to be utterly unimportant or simply wrong. It’s as if our collective memory washes all of that out. All that’s left is amazing clarity.
And once that forgetting has taken place, it’s easy to look back at the now sanitized version of the past and think it was not possible that it could have happened any other way.
We look back on World War II as a “good war.” It’s completely clear to us (from our present vantage point) that it was always a foregone conclusion that the United States would enter the war. It’s clear to us that it was a foregone conclusion that once we were in, victory was assured. Shed of any pesky details, it’s an easy picture to remember and “know.” It must have happened that way because that’s how we remember it.
This week, I heard an interview with the author of a new book about the political climate in the United States between 1939 and 1941.
Those are not arbitrary dates: Germany invades Poland and the war is underway in September, 1939. Then the United States enters the war after the events of December, 1941: the attack on Pearl Harbor, our declaration of war on Japan in response, and then Germany’s declaration of war on the US in response to that.
Between 1939 and 1941, there was a huge internal debate in the United States between those who felt we should enter the war (the “Interventionists”) and those who felt we should stay out (the “Isolationists”). The rhetorical and political battles involved such luminaries as President Roosevelt (sympathetic with the interventionist view) and Charles Lindbergh (who was an unofficial spokesman for the isolationists). Both sides of the war in Europe had active espionage operations in this country trying to influence public opinion. Isolationist leaders on campuses included two future presidents and a future Supreme Court justice. Interventionist leaders included titans of industry and Hollywood figures.
One of the isolationists’ reasoned arguments was that in the wake of the Great Depression trying to fight a war would cause the nation’s economy to take another dive, if not collapse totally, leaving us unable to defend ourselves should we need to.
Another of the isolationist arguments (based on the experiences of trench warfare in the First World War) was that millions upon millions of American soldiers would be needed to effectively wage the war and that millions would die…and it wasn’t even “our” war.
In point of fact, neither of those arguments turned out to be “what actually happened.” The economy actually benefited from the war production. The casualties, reprehensible as any are, turned out to be far less than the “reasonable estimates” of the isolationists.
Here’s the point: It’s very easy for us to sit on this side of that history and see that the isolationists’ arguments were wrong and that World War II is the dictionary definition of “the good war.” Because we’ve scrubbed the history clean. In our collective memory, the history of World War II goes straight from “Germany invades Poland” to “U.S. enters war and victory is assured.”
But absolutely no one could know that in 1939-1941. No one.
Is there a point lurking somewhere in here, Greg? (I know; wordy.)
Here goes: As I listened to the interview, I went further back in history in my mind, to a spring weekend almost two thousand years ago when a young artisan-turned-preacher died on a Roman cross.
Some thought, “That’s the end of that…and good riddance!”
Some thought, “That’s the end of that…what’ll I do now?”
Some thought, “That’s the end of that…and it might as well be the end of the world, because this is the worst thing that could ever happen!”
Some thought, “That’s the end of that…and how can I ever trust God again? If God won’t save this guy…”
Some thought, as they laid him in a tomb, “That’s the end of that…”
I wonder if we have scrubbed and sanctified our shared memory of that weekend to the point that there’s no Saturday left. We jump straight from “died on the cross” to “raised from the dead.”
But maybe what makes Sunday so unbelievably sweet and joyous is that Saturday. A Saturday in which there is no assured outcome, no sure next step, no future to anticipate. A Saturday filled with numbness and fear and disorientation. A Saturday seemingly emptied of any hope.
But now, in retrospect (and only in retrospect!), it’s all so clear.
My hunch is that most of us live a great deal of our lives in “Saturday.” “Saturday” is a hard time to live, a hard time to trust God. But in all of our “Saturdays,” those times of fear and hopelessness, we can remember that “Sunday” is coming, with its proof that God is faithful and that all of our “Fridays” and “Saturdays” are redeemed and vindicated. In fact, “Sunday” with God turns out to be so amazing that “Saturday” with all its doubt and disorientation may be utterly forgotten.