Saturday, February 19, 2011

“What might it mean to live our lives as if the lives of others truly mattered?”

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey
PhD Student, University of New Brunswick

“What might it mean to live our lives as if the lives of others truly mattered”? This is the question that Roger Simon poses in his discourse on the pedagogical significance of remembrance-learning. His response: if the lives of others truly matter, then we should accept the memories of others as counsel and learn from them. Memory and remembrance provide the framework by which individuals have the ability to re-experience the past through the lives of others. Although highly transient in nature, memory and remembrance are the triggers that allow us to make connections between the past, present and future.

Engaging with the past is a profoundly personal experience that is driven by memory. Be it personal, collective or historical, each of us finds our sense of identity by (to borrow the words of Robert R. Archibald) “connecting the dots” between ourselves and others across time. In this way, we are able to make sense of the events that happen in our lives or in the lives of others.

Preliminary research findings from the national survey project Canadians and Their Pasts confirm that a vast majority of Canadians engage in the past as part of living their daily lives. As with similar findings in the United States and Australia, Canadians do this in a variety of ways, but activities that relate to the collective memory of families are considered most important. In explaining why family history is so significant to Canadians, most speak about issues of identity: “it identifies who I am, gives me an idea of where I come from, where I am going”. Such early findings confirm that Canadians possess a deep connection to their past – provided that it is encountered through the people who mean the most to them: the family unit, culture group, or nation to which they closely associate.

In his thoughtful publication about returning home, entitled A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community, public historian Robert R. Archibald addresses many of these same memory connections. Returning to his boyhood home of Ishpeming, Michigan, Archibald wanted to use his own memory as a “personal historical experiment”; to explore relationships between place, memory, identity and community. In the places of his youth, Archibald re-remembered his past and learned a great deal about himself:
Here I cannot escape my present or past self. Here my own aging is apparent and I mourn my very own lost boy. And here I assess the proud successes and dismal failures of my own life. (15)

Archibald found that his personal memory was sparked by certain locales – a particular sight, sound, smell or sensation – and some of these memory triggers were unique to him alone. Walking and reminiscing with his sister Anne, for example, Archibald witnessed the power of memory and the experience of historical perspective in real life:
As Anne and I walk in the midst of these memory places and as we recollect with each other, we find noncongruent memories. First there are events and places that Anne remembers and insists that I must also, but I just do not; and vice versa. Then there are points where we agree that something took place but each of us has remembered or interpreted it very differently. We agree to not agree… (41)

But there were also times when Archibald’s personal memories shared a common thread with others in the community. Such memories (associated with locations or events that touched the lives of many) were not unique to Archibald, and were thus part of a collective memory. Some of these locations, such as the community’s landmark hotel (the Mather Inn), serve as memory anchors for many individuals, including the author:
… as the site of major events… combined with thousands of shared memories of proms, parties, visiting friends and relatives, dinners, and receptions, as well as more private memories of honeymoons, meetings, and partings, this building is a repository of civic memory that accords it a community-wide significance. (33-34)

Other landmarks, however, were shared by others who were not part of Archibald’s own collective memory nor collective group. Within the city of St. Louis, for example, where Robert Archibald is currently President of the Missouri Historical Society, the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, located in the center of St Louis’ historic African-American neighborhood, serves as a collective memory site for the African-American community of St. Louis:
… a place of nativity, a hall of hope, a promise broken, a place defiled, a legacy lost, a future imperiled. (12)

Both the Mather Inn and Phillips Hospital are equally significant to communities who extract their shared identity from these sites; the latter, however, is even more significant than the former, since it serves as witness to a community that (in the past) was excluded from the powerbase of the former. By preserving a landmark such as the Phillips Hospital, the community of St. Louis is reconciling historical memory (factual evidence that St. Louis’ African-American community truly did exist and contributed to the economic development of the city) with collective memory (concepts and remembrances held true by those who are still living). Such reconciliation of memory could provide a context for what Roger Simon describes as “remembrance-learning” – that is to say, not just representing the past as a foreign relic, but bringing the past into the present: finding counsel in the remembrances of others, relating this to the present, and learning from it.

To “live our lives as if the lives of others truly mattered” is to find counsel in the memories of others and in so-doing learn from the past. Such a prospect requires an acceptance of what Jörn Rüsen describes as “otherness” – either the otherness of another culture or the otherness of another space in time. Roger Simon describes such an encounter with otherness as “historiographic poetics” – the juxtaposition of differing points of view or remembrances – and he presents this as a pedagogical strategy for bringing the past into the present, drawing out personal meaning, and enabling societal re-generation through empathy and reconciliation.