Your Place in History

Where were you when you heard the news of JFK’s assassination? How about the day Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind? Do you remember the advent of credit cards? These events shaped our national awareness, but history books are full of lesser occurrences that also shaped the flow of history, most of which will pass unremembered.

You may not have thought of your life story as part of history — few people do. But just as the ocean is an accumulation of drops of rain, so history is the accumulation of the lives of individuals. We each have a part, if only as a participant in daily life and a recorder of developments. When you include larger historical elements in your personal story, you link your life with the overall flow of others in your time and space.

Kim Pearson, author and owner of Primary Sources, has written a book that makes it easy to do this. In Making History
: How to remember, record, interpret, and share the events in your life, she includes lengthy lists of historical events and developments spanning the decades from the 1930s to the 1980s, arranged in eight chapters covering various aspects of society and culture. The text in each chapter gives an overview of the flow of history during these decades, and she includes a lengthy list of writing prompts at the end that should send you flying for paper or keyboard. You can learn more about the book by reading my review.

In the introduction she reminds us that history is always told and written from the perspective of individuals, whether it’s recorded in history books, encyclopedias, or other accounts. Anyone familiar with the women’s movement knows feminists claim that we read history, not herstory. When you write about your life, you are writing yourstory. Including larger elements turns it into ourstory.

You may have seen the viral e-mail going around claiming that in deference to the growing Muslim population there, Britain is revising history by requiring the Holocaust not be mentioned in history text books. That e-mail is utterly false (check it on, but something similar could happen. If it does, eye-witness accounts of those involved could be invaluable in setting the record straight at some future point.

Events don’t have to be that dramatic to matter. You will do your descendants a favor by writing of the flavor of your times on a larger scale, whether that’s a local decision of the School Board to increase class size, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, or a declaration of war. Devote a few stories to telling them what was going on in the world around you in various years. Let them know what you thought about events and how they influenced and affected you for better or worse. That will give them a more rounded view of you, and as a bonus, it will teach them a few fragments of history in a way that will throb with relevance and energy.

Write now: about your experience of a historic event like JFK’s death, the war in Viet Nam, or some lesser historical event. Tell what you were doing when you heard about it, what you thought when you heard it, how it affected your life right then and later, and anything else that seems relevant.

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