Laughing at Taking History Seriously

My last post was risible.    There is more to the present than concern about what it will look like in the historical record.

There is certainly more to intelligence than having that concern.    We are as likely to laugh at history and with good reason.

YouTube includes abundant examples of historical misfortunes uploaded expressly for the point of sharing a laugh.    Under the general theme of “fail” are many examples that actually appear deliberate either with the intention of failing or at least of very likely to fail.  The past can be funny.

I guess there can be an argument made that deliberately capturing a misfortune for the sake of provoking laughter may itself be undertaken seriously.  Some of the laughter can be mean spirited or strategic in a larger conflict.   Politics in particular seems to be trying a little too hard to make fun of their opponents, for example.    I’d grant that the project of provoking laughter can be undertaken seriously.

There are other options for intelligence than taking history seriously.

It was silly for me to suggest that history has some opinion on its contents.   We, living in the present, are the only ones who can generate an opinion about a historical event: we are free to decide what was good or evil or just plain silly.   We change our opinions over time.  History itself (as well as its sibling Missed Opportunity) has no opinion one way at the other.    Any cheer, sadness, or laughter about the contents of either comes from those living in the present.

This is an example where an author is laughing at his own historical record, or at least criticizing it.   This is why I find writing to be so addictive: I keep feeling compelled to answer what my earlier self wrote.

I think most who know me would probably say I’m a pretty serious and unfunny person.   I doubt any reader would disagree.  Although my attitude to the outer world tends to be serious, I do not take myself seriously.    Now that I said that, the two ideas may be two sides of the same coin: my insecurity about myself makes me more cautious in dealing with the outside world.

Many people laugh more readily than I do.  Laughing is as much a sign of intelligence as fretting.    Laughter or fear are two possible reactions of seeing the present in terms of history.   Both recognize a profound disconnect between the present instant and the past: the present has possibilities, the past has only what actually happened.

My main motivation to think about history is as a generalization of working with historical data.   I am especially fascinated by the missing data or ambiguous data.  I call this dark data because it lack direct evidence or strong support.   The word dark probably also is appealing for its connotation of invoking caution.   But the same data could just as easily be described as light data (data with little mass) and permit a different connotation of invoking frivolity or joviality.

My nature is biased toward the dark or heavy interpretation.   Dark data deserves scrutiny and suspicion.   Sometimes those suspicions can be funny.   More than a few times I ended up laughing at myself for over thinking a problem.    No doubt, even more frequently are when others have laughed at my seriousness.

I still think there is a worthy motivation for seriously investigating suspicious data.   I feel comfortable doing that.   More times than not, the effort pays dividends.

But it also worthy to laugh at suspicious data for its ridiculousness.   It is healthy to have both sides.

As there is a danger in putting confidence into data that lacks support, there is also danger in putting too much confidence in our ability to make the best decisions based on the past.

Sometimes it is best to laugh off the past entirely and say this time is different.

Saying “this time is different” is a redirection of our focus on the present instead of the past or instead of a potential contribution to history.  This is laughter’s gift to us.  Laughter breaks the spell of history, and asks us to pay attention to the present.

Paying attention to the present is to pay attention to those around us.   Laughter directed at history (even some person’s history) calls us to embrace our friendships, relationships, and fellowships of the present moment.

In my last post I contrasted history with missed opportunity.  Both are creatures of a past world.   The creatures of the present world are our friends and colleagues, but also strangers and enemies.  The present and the past worlds are parallel universes with a one-way and somewhat cloudy window allowing us to see the past without the past being able to see us.

I suppose it is possible to live entirely in the present and think only of the current network of relationships with others without any consideration of how it may eventually work out.    It is a little harder to imagine living entirely focused on the past where the present is nothing other than an incremental progression of history, but I suppose it is possible.   Of the two extremes the latter is scarier.

Our nature itself may deliver our welfare through trusting our lives to the relationships we make and maintain.   History provides evidence that living in the moment is good enough.   Laughing at history may be good medicine to strengthen our relationships with each other.

It was a mistake to over generalize my experience of a job that rewarded me for paying close attention to historical data.   Life is not a job.

In answer to my last post: History is not my employer.


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