One of my mostly unstated purposes in teaching history courses is to honor the courage it has always taken to live in the world.
(Content warning: This post discusses suicide.)
As I’m writing this, tragic news is emerging about the death of another American celebrity. This news comes the day after the Centers for Disease Control reported that suicide rates have increased, sometimes dramatically, in nearly every U.S. state since 1999. The report’s clinical language summarizes, but also conceals, hundreds of thousands of stories—the stories of survivors of all kinds as well as the stories of those who have died. The most striking language in the report, to me, is this: “More than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition.”
A couple of years ago, an acquaintance of mine was the center of one of these stories. A small part of his struggle was apparent to most people who knew him. Much was not. He left behind words that I think about sometimes. He warned his friends and family they might discover terrible things about him afterward. I still don’t know what he had in mind, but his warning was universal.
George Orwell knew the score: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”[*]
A series of defeats.
The remarkable poet Mary Karr had similar news for graduates at a commencement ceremony: “Don’t make the mistake of comparing your twisted up insides to other people’s blow dried outsides. The most privileged person in this [room] suffers the torments of the damned just going about the business of being human.”[*]
I am not a health professional, and I do not make public policy. But I am a teacher, and I’m a person capable of feeling loneliness, loss, and fear. My students, every day, face crushing enemies. I will never know most of their stories. But I want them to know they are not alone. Their struggles are the struggles of humanity, today and in the past. We and our ancestors are fighting these wars together.
One of the risks of a reductive political approach to history—whether derived from a politics of conservation or a politics of resistance—is that it may obscure this deeper texture of daily struggle. History teachers should know that our distinctive role in this vast struggle is no less important—and perhaps more powerful—than any partisan role we may aspire to play in the world.
Sometimes I do make this explicit. I like to end the semester, especially in courses that deal extensively with subjects that have difficult contemporary relevance, with an exhortation to have courage. Sometimes I quote a favorite writer’s thoughts about facing the beauty and terrors of the world.
I urge students to remember that the courage it takes to face the world isn’t about lacking fear, but about living in a spirit of openness and freedom and generosity and forgiveness in spite of our fears. And I remind my students, as they go out into the world, that the course has shown them they aren’t alone. And I hope it has shown them some of the world’s enduring beauty in the midst of its wars.
Image: Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs (1861). Dallas Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons.