History and Heritage: Facts and Stories

History and heritage are all over the news these days, magnified by the recent tragic events in Charlottesville.  These words are closely linked, and both are composed largely of stories, rather than facts.  While history is often thought of as facts and events, we rarely confine ourselves to these elements, because, as humans, we seek meaning, and that drives us to create stories, which allows us to derive meaning out of facts and events.  When we incorporate these stories into our lives, our culture, our norms, and our values, and pass these down through generations, we create our heritage.

Stories are magical things. The structure of a story has been shown to simultaneously stimulate multiple areas of our brains, including the cortex (where we think and reason), the hippocampus (where our memories live), and our amygdala (where we store our emotions). Facts and events alone do not do the same thing. Stories help make new connections in our brains; they literally rewire us, and have been shown scientifically to produce more empathy, compassion, and altruism. Stories make us better, more caring people.

Sometimes. Because stories can also harm us. We all have good and bad memories; we all are capable of good and bad emotions.  The stories we hear and incorporate into our sense of who we are, and the stories that we inherit as part of our heritage, are made visible and public by the way we choose to live our lives, and by the things that we say and do and write.

We cannot change the facts and events of the past, but we can change the stories that we tell about them. In doing so, we hopefully incorporate new knowledge as well as evolving intellectual, emotional, and moral thinking, and arrive at enlightenment.  We have done this forever; had we not, we would continue to believe the world was flat, that disease was caused by evil humors, and that aristocracy was the best form of government.  Change is not easy, and may be unsettling, but we owe it to our descendants to provide them with an enlightened heritage.

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