“Feeling” History: The Challenge of Finding Myself in the Bigger Picture

It’s recently dawned upon me that I have trouble connecting to the past, to history. I can’t see myself as part of that larger story, as just a momentary phase amidst a much longer continuity of time.

I feel like World War II was fought amongst the belligerents of Earth-1, and I occupy Earth-2, observing from a safe distance. The fact that GI’s came back to a newly-built suburbia in the Valley where I was born and raised isn’t something I really feel. I know it, but I can’t feel it.

In trying to transcend this disconnect, I’ve found some solace in nearby “relics.” A short hike from my house is a decommissioned Cold War era observation tower that was once part of the U.S. Army’s Project Nike anti-aircraft missile defense system. It’s a real, tangible place I can actually visit and experience in much the same way it was 60 years ago. If you live in a dense coastal area of California, you can visit one too.

The Nike site is among just a handful of things that help me contextualize my lifetime within the greater historical timeline, and it’s still imperfect at best.

My Armenian ancestry is another rare history-linking component of my psychology. The Armenian Genocide of 1915 set about a series of events that led my grandparents to move around the Middle East until finally the family relocated to the U.S., where I was eventually born. In other words, I am only here in the U.S. because of these massive historical upheavals (and I’m still leaving out a lot of details, like the Egyptian nationalization of transportation contracts in the 60s–long story). Understanding this does provide some context and continuity.

But having been raised in the Armenian community, these facts have been repeatedly pounded into my head. I’m not sure if they’d still have the same sort of lucidity had I not been part of the community. For example, does the average white American feel connected to the larger human story by focusing on Jamestown?

Thinking about this a little deeper, this historical disconnect may be a psychological defense mechanism designed to shield our psyches from literally “feeling” or carrying the weight of such long stretches of time. In each of our own lifetimes, the human mind has a remarkable capacity to forget certain things purposefully. Perhaps the same concept applies across generations of humans?