From Curiosity to Hope: The Work of Local Historians

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Idle curiosity? There is no such thing. Curiosity, whether innocent, prying, or professional, drives historical research. Every chronicler of noteworthy events must ask the who-what-where-when-why-how questions that produce accurate records, but a good historian is also an artist. In classical Greece, history even had its own muse, Kleio, “Granter of Glory,” since an orderly account of the chaotic events of a battle or an era is as much a work of art as a poem or a drama. Curiosity unfurls the sails of imagination, and imagination is the flagship for our journey toward understanding.

Photo by George Gamble

We are all potential historians, but we will never be truly effective until we wade into the river of history to experience it with a child’s attentiveness.  Children learn about the world by breathing it into their souls (the Latin root of inspiration means “breath”) and by asking endless questions.  Behind every doorway in our neighborhood, a story unfolds; on every street in our town, epic events occur; in the heart of every city, life, with all its complexities, waits for an enlightened historian to discover it.

Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha achieved enlightenment only after realizing “that secret from the river, that there is no such thing as time . . . that the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.

Anyone who has visited a Civil War battlefield understands how effortlessly the line blurs between past and present: the tragic events that happened there can still make us weep. Anne Frank’s spirit lives on in a dark attic in Amsterdam. Emerson’s frayed straw hat still hangs on a peg in the hallway of his house in Concord; a visitor imagines that the great writer himself might stride past at any moment and slap the hat onto his head. History surrounds us, and we can drift serenely in it if we open our hearts to wonder.

Be warned: a well-developed sense of curiosity may not make us popular – it is, in fact, commonly considered humanity’s first negative trait. Eve and Pandora are both reviled as examples of feminine imperfection. Giving ourselves over too freely to curiosity puts us at risk of being deemed “prying” or “meddlesome.” Curiosity, after all, killed the cat.

Photo by Michael DeHart

On the other hand, the rewards of perseverance can be great. Most of those punished for curiosity eventually receive compensation for their suffering. Although Eden was glorious, Eve discovered the satisfaction of personal accomplishment only after leaving Paradise. Pandora released evil into the world by opening The Box; however, the lovely, fragile creature who remained with her afterwards was hope, that same spiritual longing with which historians guide the past forward into the present. (2002)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: