History is momentum

23 August 2020
23 Aug 2020
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

At some point in the future, “yesterday” will become part of “history.”

That day is not today. Today, “yesterday” is still just yesterday – it’s what I did before I went to sleep. It isn’t next week, because next week, “yesterday” will just be “last week.” It probably won’t be next year. Next year, yesterday is just “last semester” or “a few months ago.” It seems so recent, and so changeable. In the near future, yesterday feels like a part of “now.”

But over time, yesterday escapes the “now” and becomes a part of “history.” I’m fascinated by this process by which yesterday becomes history, and the changeable becomes the immovable.

History might seem like an inevitable, passive side effect of the unforgiving arrow of time dragging its claws through our lives. But what we say and do play an active role in this senescence of the yesterday into what we call “history.”

The work of crafting history

The default fate of the unremarkable, everyday “yesterday” is to be forgotten. If ever a day existed where nobody did anything, and nobody thought anything, that day would escape into the void of time, never to be spoken of again.

Yesterday becomes a part of history because we make it a part of our story. To our friends and family we talk about that show we watched yesterday or that noise we heard from the neighbors last night. At work we may write yesterday into accounting records or meeting notes or calendars. And in the public forum, it seems everyone is a scribe, tirelessly opining and profusely communicating about what happened yesterday and how we should feel, what we should remember, why we should learn, and where this all takes us. As a connected, global forum we etch our own marks into the irreverent stream of today becoming yesterday becoming last week, becoming last year. Becoming history.

This is the work of crafting history. Yesterday becomes history because we speak it into the records. History-building is a collective, conscious act, and you, as much as I, are complicit.

Static, or what history is not.

Somewhere in this process of yesterday growing old into history, the stories become less changeable. And understanding why this happens, I think, gives us better ways of writing better days into our future history.

Yesterday is just barely out of the oven. The stories are still steaming hot. We can add more flavor and texture to stories from yesterday. So we spend a lot of time, today, interpreting and understanding yesterday. In these conversations, we project our mindsets and worldviews into the stories of yesterday. And because yesterday is still so malleable, our memory of yesterday becomes however we see it today.

But a few days pass, and yesterday is starting to take shape. Yesterday is finding a form. The form is shaped by the politics and writing and gossip of the days that have passed. We can still change it, but it’s taking more effort.

Then months pass, and years pass, and slowly, yesterday grows solid and unchangeable. Yesterday becomes static, and after decades pass, yesterday becomes this stone that cannot be moved, that cannot be sculpted into anything other than what years of history-craftspeople have chiseled it to become, by their beliefs and their words.

I used to think this is how history worked. But I started seeing things differently. I saw the immovable rocks move.

Momentum, or what history is.

History is not just a sequence of facts. We already know this – if history were simply a list of events, every day would be recorded just the same. There would be no “historic dates” or “watershed moments” that rise above all others. History is events, imbued with the values of those who tell it.

So when the values change and the storytellers change, history changes. The rocks move.

In the rise of imperialism, to the colonialist powers, expansion was prosperity and economic growth. And with every decade that passed, the history crafted by those in power gained momentum. Colonialism was just the way it was, and tomorrow, nothing would change.

In Silicon Valley’s golden days, every year added fuel to the idea that technology was the solution. And with every year that passed, companies and writers and businesspeople gave momentum to this technology-driven solutionism.

In America’s history of racial injustice, too, decades of history add momentum. For decades, history was what it was, and what it would have continued to be.

But in all these cases, momentum was curbed. The history is either re-told, or in the process of revision today.

If we view history as a process of slow paralysis, where everything comes to immutable ends, I think we also subconsciously denounce our ability to move it and retell it, when in fact, history is as much a process of rewriting itself, as it is the work of creating it.

History doesn’t grow static over time, it simply gains momentum. Yesterday is barely mobile – it has just gotten off its feet. A young yesterday is at the whim of the loudest voices in the room. Over time, yesterday gains momentum, and as decades and centuries pass, yesterday becomes harder to stop. It has a direction, and it moves with force, at the expense of those who disagreed with its initial authors. At some point, when the inertia is great enough, it becomes history. History is this momentum. It moves in a singular direction, and tends not to admit nuance.

This is why it’s so hard to effect social change against deep-rooted systems and beliefs. We aren’t just changing the systems of today, we’re also fighting decades and centuries of momentum embedded in history, and we’re calling for large-scale course corrections of humanity.

But if we believe in this view of change, our work also changes slightly. Social change is no longer just a fight against today’s systems. It’s also the work of understanding the momentum, finding what drives it, and telling and spreading stories that accelerate momentum in the opposite direction. Social change is also the work of changing history’s momentum. Moving the immovable.

I like this view of history because it empowers changemakers rather than discourages them. The biggest problems that seem so embedded in history are more changeable than they might seem. History isn’t static; history is momentum. And when it collides with forces large enough and persistent enough, history changes course, and we find ourselves with newfound momentum, hopefully rushing towards a better place.


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Tomorrow, the fog will lift.

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