Reading History as a Spiritual Practice

I understand that a lot of people “don’t like History.”

I just don’t understand why.

And so I put “don’t like History” in quotes because part of me suspects that people really do like History–they just have been wrongly taught what it is.

They have been taught to think that History is memorizing a bunch of names and dates about people and events that are irrelevant to their lives.  But that’s not what History is.  For one thing, History is not the study of “names and dates”: it’s the study of people.  History is the story of how people have lived on this earth, and how they have handled the circumstances life threw at them, like power or disaster or wealth or pain or opportunity.

And it’s not irrelevant to our lives.  In a very real way, History explains what you see when you look out the window.  It explains why you do the things you do, drive on the roads you drive on, eat the foods you eat, think the thoughts you think.  It explains in large part why you see the world the way you do and why that way is different from your fellow man across the street or the country or the globe.  In other words, History examines the complex forces which have come together to form this present moment.

To me, that is fascinating.  Learning about people is fascinating.  And learning about myself is fascinating.  So with all that fascination, what’s not to like?

Lately, though, I’ve realized that reading about History is not simply an entertaining and informative practice in my life; it is also a kind of spiritual exercise.  This makes me happy because my life hypothesis is that everything I do can be to the glory of God.  And I’ve always assumed that reading History falls into that category because it improves the mind God gave me and also gives me a better understanding of the world He created.  I still believe that, but now I’m seeing so many added benefits of History, benefits that directly affect my relationship with God and my ability to my “good works” in this world.  For instance…

History relieves my stress.

Like a lot of people, I struggle with worry and anxiety.  Over the years, I’ve realized that worry and anxiety consume me when I am too focused on my immediate circumstances.  I think there is such a think as mentally drowning in your surroundings:  YOUR health, YOUR family, YOUR finances, YOUR plans.  When those things begin to take up too much of my focus, my anxiety over them skyrockets.  Conversely, I’ve found that “getting outside myself” and serving others gives me back that freeing perspective that comes with knowing the world is bigger than my problems.  Allowing others’ lives and perspectives into my thoughts helps put my own in perspective.

trumanThe same thing happens when I read History.  I read David McCullough’s excellent biography, Truman, for example, in a time of great financial stress for Greg and me.  We were trying to sell our house in South Carolina and having to still make payments on it while also carrying a mortgage on our house in Tennessee.  It was bad.   It caused me lots of anxiety.  And nothing helped relieve that anxiety than by reading about all Harry Truman went through as President.   I drew actual comfort while reading about this average American who grew up on a farm was thrust into the highest office in the land without so much of a briefing of how World War 2 was going…how he was expected to negotiate the end of the war in Europe…to make a decision about dropping a terrible weapon to end the war in the Pacific…and forced to take the lead in rebuilding the world.  At one point, he and his advisers thought they were literally faced with the beginning of World War 3 and were frantically trying to avoid it, and Truman’s stoicism and courage in that time was such a inspiration to me.

And I can honestly say that “watching” that man navigate and handle such immense stress in his own life really put my own stress in perspective.  It helped me to relax about my financial situation, and realize that it truly wasn’t the end of the world.  At least, not in the same way that World War 3 would be the end of the world!

History calms my fears.

Sometimes when you look at the scope of the whole world and all that is going on, it seems very scary.  History doesn’t necessarily negate that awareness, but when I read History, I’m reminded that the world has always been scary…and that lots of times have been way scarier than these times.  Reading History also reminds me that the scary times pass, and that’s comforting to me.  On September 11, 2001, a day that was full of fear and turmoil, one of the most genuinely comforting thoughts I had was picturing the wording that my high school History textbook, The American Pageant, would use to describe the event in twenty years.  Maybe that seems like a weird source of comfort, but there is something inherently calming in knowing that what seems so huge and tumultuous and fearful will one day be just another source of boredom to a disinterested high school student.

History gives me perspective on my life situation.

This is a huge spiritual benefit of reading History.  I think humans naturally tend to assume that our experience is normal, whereas History reminds us of all the ways our circumstances are unique.  For example, in our area of the country and time and History, we might assume a certain house size is “normal,” a certain amount of clothes are “normal,” or the ways we spend our money are “normal.”  History tells us that it isn’t.  In fact, History tells us that today’ “normal” lifestyle in America is actually quite excessive, and knowing that helps me to better evaluate my use of resources.  That’s just one example of how History has redefined my life expectations.  I could also talk about my expectations of “normal” when it comes to experiencing pain or educating my children or eating food or a number of other issues.  But suffice it to say that History has both made me more grateful and more thoughtful about how I live my life.

History provides me with useful examples of how to live this life.

This may sound crazy, but when you read hundreds of pages on a person’s life, get to nose through all their private correspondence and peer into their relationships…well, you kind of feel like you’re friends at the end of it.  At least, you sort of feel like you know them.  You know how something will happen, and you’ll think, I wonder what so-and-so would think of this, so-and-so being your spouse or family member or good friend.  And you know that person well enough to hazard an educated guess on their reaction or what they might say.  Well, I now think that thought, not only about my own family and friends, but about a variety of past Presidents and statesmen!  When I first read Walter Isaacson’s biography on Ben Franklin, I spent way too much time looking at the circumstances of this current world and wondering, “What would Ben Franklin think of this?”  Like, what would he think about…cars…or the radio…or the state of civil rights…or even women’s dress these days (RE that last one, I think that after he got over being appalled, he would LOVE it!)

Now, in addition to, “What would Ben Franklin think of this,” I can reasonable ask myself, “What would Harry Truman do in this situation?” or “How would Teddy Roosevelt handle this?”

This is more than a nerdy/fun mental exercise.  Because of my Christian beliefs, I am inspired to use my little life to the absolute best of my abilities, and the more advisers and examples I can have, the better.  And I’m not talking about some one-dimensional perspective like, “I should always do what Harry Truman did.”  No, that’s not it at all.  It’s more like, by observing these influential people and the way they spent their little lives, I can glean lessons and inspiration for my own–both through their triumphs and their faults.

I guess you could say that History deepens my understanding and experience of humanity by giving me a rich source of varied experiences from which to draw.

Those are just some of the ways that reading History shapes me on a spiritual level.  To demonstrate this, I’d like to occasionally review History books I’ve read and specifically point out their spiritual lessons.  And I have a great book to start with…stay tuned!

Do you like History?  Why or why not?


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by bekster081305 on July 18, 2014 at 11:00 am

    I think when people think about History, they tend to equate it with History class in school. For me, History class depended greatly on my teacher. I have had some good ones and some bad ones, so I guess my opinion of different parts of History varies depending on which teacher I had for that part. (World History, especially the Middle Ages is fun, but I can’t stand South Carolina History.) Outside of the context of school, however, I wouldn’t say that I am passionate about History in general (like you are, obviously) 🙂 but I am passionate about stories. They don’t even have to be true as long as the characters are true to human nature. When I was a kid, I might have had the subconscious thought, “What would Nancy Drew think of this?” Granted, when you are dealing with people who actually lived, it does add a lot more weight to their opinions. But, I think it is fascinating to think about what certain “people” with certain character traits would do in certain situations. Then I can think about what I would do in the same situations and if my own character were up to the standard.

    Of course the greatest example of History making a difference in our lives would be the Bible. I do find a lot of inspiration like you are talking about there (I mean, duh!, right?). But sometimes I have to remind myself that the things I read about in the Bible are actually true and not just cute little fictional stories. Either way they would inspire me, but the fact that they are true in this case does make a lot of difference. Once I grasp the “true-ness” of those stories, I can carry the same ideas into my own life and I can have more faith that the same types of things that happened to those people can actually happen to me.


    • Thanks for sharing, Becky! I especially love the idea of being passionate about stories. In some way, I believe that we all share that passion. “Story” is the medium through which information and ideas are best conveyed to people, at least in my opinion. And that’s also why I think so many History teachers and textbooks have fallen short: they’ve lost the “story” element and tried to shortcut to the “facts.” It doesn’t work because the human brain does not retain isolated “facts” so well…

      As for fiction, I also believe that good fictional stories can enrich one’s life in much the same way as History. I just happen to love the fact that History is measurably true, in a way that fiction is not, and I guess because of that, I put greater stock in its lessons. I also take more comfort from it and see more clearly its impact on my life.

      (And on a sidenote, a well-written fictional story sometimes pulls me TOO far out of my life, to the degree that all I want to do is read, read, read…and neglect everything else around me:). History is fascinating, but it’s usually meaty enough that it works out my brain, which makes me need to take more breaks:). Not that fiction can’t be “meaty.” Work with me here…)


      • Oh, and I forgot to acknowledge your reference to the Bible. YES…the Bible as a historical document provides the same benefits I discussed in the post…and as the word of God, it provides infinitely more…


      • Posted by bekster081305 on July 18, 2014 at 12:01 pm

        I know what you mean about fiction having too great a pull. But, there have been times in my life when I really needed that to help me cope with something real in my life. Otherwise, I would have obsessed too much about the real thing. Worrying about someone else’s problems that I knew weren’t true gave me something “safe” to think about until I was able to get past the negative stuff going on in my own life. But, anyway, I know what you are saying. 🙂


  2. Posted by bekster081305 on July 18, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Also, I was going to mention that my own history can be a great inspiration to me (wow, that sounds vain, but that’s not what I mean). If I remember the things I have gone through in the past and how God has helped me through those things, I can have more peace that He is still with me now and will carry me to an even better place than I was before.


  3. I read history for fun too, Kim. And similar to Becky’s take on it, I think history makes a good story and when it’s told well everyone ends up liking it a lot. After all, who doesn’t like a good story?


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