History is Sticky

           The word “sticky” has a lot of meanings if you look it up. What I mean here is a slang used in many fields to mean a tendency for something to persist without a simple explanation.

           Examples: a meme that people remember after seeing it only a few times or a melody line or catch phrase that everyone knows and is difficult to forget. These things are sticky.

           As someone said, “history is the past remembered.” It exists in peoples’ memories, not in our world today. History books are based on written accounts that are closer to the events, but they are still from memories and reflect the nature of the writer. We can’t know in detail what “actually happened” because the details are too numerous and most of them are irrelevant…but which details? Even recent personal history between two friends, lovers, siblings, etc. takes on a different meaning for each, which they discover if they discuss it. (“That’s not what I said!”)

           There is editing and judgement in the remembering—and therefore the telling—of any story. What’s important? What’s not? What’s too uncomfortable to tell? What’s added to make the story “work”? What did they actually mean by what they said? Any two writers, even with the best intentions, will make different decisions. As a friend of mine says, “That’s how wars get started.”

           So why bother? Wouldn’t it be better to just move on from where we are and forget about the past, at least the past beyond some time period?

           We can’t. 

           We are conditioned through millennia of evolution to remember as much of the past as possible. Some version of the story of our past, true or untrue, painful or comforting, defines us. From person to family to culture to nation to species our history matters to us, so much that we will often kill for it, personally like the Hatfields and McCoys, or collectively like…well…like a war. 

           That’s the definition of sticky. 

           Why a certain history causes certain threats or feelings which lead to certain actions is usually so obvious we don’t think about it. If it isn’t obvious, the participants will be quick to explain it, each from their own point of view.

           But why is this stickiness so fundamental to human life? Why in the beginnings of humanlike life hundreds of thousands of years ago was this trait important? And it’s more fundamental than that. Animals have memories. Maybe it started with the earliest sexual reproduction which introduced death to life.* That’s more than a billion years ago.

           So, what did remembering the past do for us? One obvious answer is that we learn from mistakes in the past, and that helped us survive. That works for animals too. Another obvious answer for social animals like us is that it solidified tribes. It built a common identity that unified the tribe against outside threats like predators or natural disasters or other tribes with their own histories…so here we are today. Not much has changed. 

           Those are probably enough reasons, but here’s another. 

           What if reality is a consensus (See the “Reality” series from Pencils 2019), and our space and our time are themselves a construct of our collective minds? This would be a very difficult illusion to maintain. (And exhausting. Maybe that’s why we sleep a third of our lives.) 

           Certainly, a fixation on history would be natural. The past is past. It doesn’t exist. The future is yet to come and doesn’t exist either. In order to maintain our conscious life now, we would have to connect our ephemeral present to both past and future. We would need a timeline connecting distant past to distant future on which we could rest the point of our present existence. Animals would need this too.

           Connecting to the future is always going to be tenuous. In this scenario we need the past so we can believe in the future and that means remembering the past—our history. As long as we are confident of our history, we can presume our future and define a present in which we can live.

           The problem obviously is that at personal and tribal levels we can’t agree on what our history is. To fix that, some of us—maybe all of us—would have to change our history. 

           It’s possible to modify your history, what you believe about your roots, but it’s not easy. History is sticky. It’s absorbed into your bones. If all the parties have a deeper shared history, which humans as a species actually do, they could step back to that general narrative while each rebuilds their personal or tribal narrative, but it’s a lot of work, and it’s uncomfortable. 

           It also feels dangerous, and it might be.

           We could be like a tightrope walker through time, taking one step at a time, always moving forward, willing our confidence that since our last step was on the rope our next one will be also, always depending on our unquestioned belief that there is a rope at all. If we argue too much about what the rope is, where it came from, and where it’s going, it might vanish.

           If this description is correct, it’s no wonder people will fight and kill for their history. It’s literally an existential issue.

Hugh Moffatt
Nashville, Tennessee
January 21, 2024

           * Single cell life forms that simply divide can’t be said to really die, because there aren’t unique individuals. Each new half is the same as the original. They’re a single collective entity. The advent of sexual reproduction introduced the death of individuals, allowed for natural selection, and sped up evolution.