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Healing Of Historic Memories

Healing Of Historic Memories

Thomas Hobbes argued in his book “Leviathan” that a ‘man was a wolf unto man’ and had to be restrained by force. His perception, of course, reflected his own bitter experience of having to flee England during the anarchy of the Civil War that killed 100,000 people (Morris 15-16).  Machiavelli’s experience of social chaos in the city-states of Italy had led him to a similar conclusion. In our own times, William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” shows a few dozen boys in the Pacific learning from experience that humans are compulsive killers; the author concludes that the human psyche is hardwired for violence, that the Beast is in us, that civilization can only suppress the symptoms not bring healing (Morris 53). Neural scientists attribute hate to primitive neural system, beginning from the reptile stage (Dozier 230).

Humanity’s association with violence is written deep into the collective memory of human beings. Great epics like Iliad, Odyssey, Mahabharata, Ramayana are mainly about wars and violence. Repulsive as violence is, it remains a gripping theme for the study of humans. According to Lawrence Keeley there are 50,000 books on the American Civil War alone (Morris 21). Fierce fighters like Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan the Mongol were heroes for their own people, mass murderers for others. World-conquerors wiped up entire races.  History thus is full of violence, one group provoking the other.

Historically, human creativity in producing new tools always got quickly transferred to the production of new weapons: bronze for tools, bronze for swords; horses for transport, horses for assault; vehicles for trade, tanks for invasion. Weapons spread faster than other equipments. Men who came out to India with Vasco da Gama made for the Sultan of Calicut 400 guns within a year. Soon enough guns were being made for local markets in China (Morris 182). Every new specialization is roped in to serve the cause of violence within a short time. It is shocking when one thinks how soon Einstein’s formulae were put to use for the production of nuclear weapons and the promotion of hate (Dozier 103).

Cultivating Memory of Historic Injuries

A tragedy is that individuals, communities, and nations retain the memories of the injuries they have received in their history, cultivate them and even build myths around them to promote anger. The memory of the painful relationships between Serbs and Croatians (in ex-Yugoslavia) were awakened recently, which led to tragic consequences. It was remembering the defeat of the Serbs at Turkish hands seven centuries ago that the Serb army attacked the Oriental Institute, destroying thousands of its Islamic and Jewish manuscripts. They shelled the National Museum and the National Library, destroying over a million books and many thousands of manuscripts and records; elsewhere in Bosnia the Serbs destroyed Ottoman architecture, and 800 mosques (Glover 147). In India too, the anger against Islamic conquest and domination of our land still remains fresh in the minds of a section of our people. Hindutva forces keep those memories alive. Local clashes take place from time to time. Little angers get accumulated, or get linked with bigger angers, and explode.

History is often written in such a manner as to keep alive negative memories and promote prejudices. The winners boast, and the losers remember. China and Japan have serious differences of opinion about their recording of World War II events. Communities in India and Pakistan seem to be competing to foster negative memories of various events in their shared history. Positive contributions of one community are being undervalued or negatively interpreted, and negative incidents are highlighted or exaggerated.

There is a general human weakness that when we revive our memories we tend to be selective, prejudiced and often lost in self-pity.  A healthy handling of the past is expected of every ‘adult person.’ When we remember only the hurts that we have received, and not those that we have inflicted on others, we manifest an inadequacy as an adult person in some manner. The fact is that we all have hurt each other in various ways. Only a healing of memories can take away all hurt feelings and bring a less destructive world into existence.

In recent years, prayer-services and commemoration of the dead are being conducted on sites associated with wars, with unhealed or unacknowledged collective wounds: Verdun, Gettysburg, Auschwitz, Hiroshima (Parker 57). Can we do something similar remembering the hurts we as a society have received at Ayodhya, Panipat, Plassey, or during the Partition….or we as communities have imposed upon other communities, ethnic groups, tribes, or religious groups in our neighbourhood? We cannot change our past, but we can change our response to the past.

Since memories shape present identities, neither ‘I’ nor ‘the other’ can be redeemed without the “redemption of the remembered past.”  When we entertain profound hurt feelings over the memories of our colonial past, we are doing more hurt to ourselves than to others. We attain true freedom only when we have redeemed our past and got rid of all rancour and ill feeling. We must dig up the anger that is buried in our hearts and transmute it by the power of genuine forgiveness into re-invigorating spiritual energies.

Working on Emotions

There are groups in many parts of the world that seek to keep alive negative memories and build up collective human emotions. Hindutva spokespersons try to outdo each other at this game. Symbols stir human hearts. It is said, men possess thoughts, but symbols possess men (Arbuckle 18). Anger rises.  The opponents react, and both groups get trapped by the violent responses of each other (Glover 123).

Penetration of local issues by regional and national issues, combination of personal quarrel with community anger or political grievance, aggravate tensions. Latent hostilities are drawn towards new avenues that open up. Occasionally local resentment against a particular grievance gets compounded with ethnic or inter-religious anger. Then, all forms of hostilities become conjoined. Emotions can be worked up out of proportion to the grievance. Then the sensational media takes over…and matters go out of everyone’s control. At times it happens that more serious emotions are being roused over lesser issues, while people who are suffering under far greater hardships remain unnoticed.

Working on Prejudice-Reduction

Suppressed anger often expresses itself in the form of a set of ‘prejudices’ against some other community. History records any number of instances of mutual prejudice. People had negative images of each other, they stereotyped each other. Their memories of past events differed. Elders deliberately passed on prejudices to the next generation. For the prejudiced person, nothing else matters: your education, job, knowledge, ideas, the great things you have accomplished—all these are nothing—you are just a stereotype of your community (Glover 152). For the Nazis, Einstein was just a ‘hated Jew’.  Distances grow between people with prejudices against each other.

Ideological prejudices can lead to grave injustices. In the Russian Revolution, millions of people who were slightly better-off than others, were declared ‘oppressors’ and killed (Glover 238). It is not easy to distinguish between justice and “socially specific prejudices and self-interested claims to power”, says Young (quoted in Volf 199). When unfair things are done in the name of justice no one wants to take responsibility. However, all are responsible in varying ways. When we propagate ideologies that condone violence, of the extreme Right or the extreme Left, we do not know what we are supporting. We cease to be promoters of life. One person’s justice in another’s understanding is barbarity.

We can learn from history. A new beginning can be attempted even after a long period of mutual alienation. Prophetic gestures can reduce tensions. Forgiveness can lead to better times. When Tony Blair took over as the British Prime Minister, he issued an apology on behalf of the British for their contribution to the infamous Irish Potato famine. This gesture met with the universal approval of the Irish political leaders (Arbuckle 10). Some time ago, Abe the PM of Japan and President Obama visited Hiroshima and Pearl Harbour in an effort to heal the negative memories associated with those places. Just the other day, as Angela Merkel of Germany visited Israel, she paid respects to the remains of the Jews killed in Nazi camps. These are little gestures with profound meaning.

Suffering can lead to vindictiveness or to redemption . “Suffering can also lead to the belief that, having suffered, one has acquired a right to impose suffering upon others. It is the special task of the survivors of violence to show us how such suffering may be transformed into redemption” (Veena Das 33). Redeeming the past…that is what forgiveness is. Extremely hard as it may sound, forgiveness is the only reliable strategy for ending the self-repeating phenomenon of unfairness in human history. Forgiveness alone can break the cycle of violence. It holds the ultimate key to that treasury which can pay all historic debts. Hindutva extremists too can mellow; they too can soften their attitudes.

The Healing of Collective Memories

Edward Said in his ‘Culture and Imperialism’ points out that during the colonial period, intellectuals who should have been the guardians of the conscience of their own nation and culture were no more than echoes of their community’s prejudices, their noble ideals notwithstanding. Slave trade, world conquest, and unfair commerce were all part of the ‘civilizing, modernising’ effort ……a form of ‘civilization’ that led to holocaust, apartheid and ethnic cleansing! It is the task of today’s intellectuals/spiritual leaders to heal such memories in their own communities …those communities that suffered this colonial injury or were victims of communal clashes, restore them to health and help them to look positively to the future. That is the only way they may transform their wounded cultures and the disturbed social situation in which they live, bringing health and wholeness. They have a vocation to be healers and not to be a depository of grievances.

Paul Ricoeur’s recent suggestions to European Union contained meaningful words like ‘exchange of memories’, ‘forgiveness’. These concepts are extremely useful for situations where people still retain hurt historic memories. We need a ‘healing of collective memories’. When you happily meet the other and forgive, the demon in the other disappears. In fact, you begin discovering yourself in the other and are filled with compassion even for his failures. You discover that “they are also human, just like you!”

Prince Shotuku of Japan introduced a liberal constitution in 604 A.D. He said, “nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong” (Aston 128-33). In the light of this marvellous insight, could we decide to bring a non-confrontational approach to our problems? The mission of peace calls for a new thinking. It lays on us the compulsion of awakening a new consciousness in ourselves. It demands that we bring new themes for discussion, create a new public opinion, and build up new philosophical and theological bases for peace.

To begin with, we ought to search for the roots of aggressiveness in ourselves. We must canalise and tap that hidden energy for new purposes. Only when we have unmasked injustice and evil in our own inner world and have subjected ourselves to a spiritual surgery, shall we be able to discover the forces of evil in the society that surrounds us and commit ourselves to working on them. Or else, even as we work for peace, we may find in ourselves striving for unfair superiority, and eagerness to manipulate others; we may discover traces of individual and collective selfishness, and unwillingness to share power, good name, and material means.

Young people in particular have to be helped out of self-imprisonment in bitterness, lest they retreat into themselves in a permanent manner. Listening, affirming, appreciating, questioning, searching together, leading people to creative dialogue with even opponents…these are some of the steps that the healer of memories takes in the fulfilment of his/her ministry.

It Is a Higher Motive That Can Persuade

Human beings come fully alive only when they share with others those values and ideas which they consider precious and true. These satisfy them more than anything else. Martin Luther King said, “If you haven’t found something that you’re willing to die for, you’re probably not fit to live any way.” Self-interest is a reality of life, but creative and sensitive people will learn to combine it with concern for others; sensitive leaders will combine it with the interests of their own community, with national interests and with those of humanity.

Persons like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were inspired by a higher motive, when they adopted an approach of refusal to retaliate to injuries. They entertained a vision of love as an agent of change, and communicated this message with demonstrative action. It did not exclude the dimension of protest, e.g. when they deliberately broke the law for conscience sake (civil disobedience). They acted out of conviction. It is truly a ‘higher motive’ that can persuade us to forgive past injuries and make a new start together for everyone’s benefit.


Arbuckle, Gerald a., Violence, Society, and the Church, Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 2004

Aston, W.G., Trans., Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the earliest Times to A.D. 697, Tuttle, Tokyo, 1872

Das, Veena, Mirrors of Violence, Oxford UP, Delhi, 1992

Dozier, Rush W. Dozier, Why We Hate, Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing, New Delhi, 2002

Glover, Jonathan, Humanity, Pimlico, London, 2001

Morris, Ian, WAR: What is it Good for? Profile Books, London, 2014

Parker, Russ, Healing Wounded History, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 2001

Runyon, Theodore, ed., Theology, Politics and Peace, Orbis Books, New York, 1989

Volf, Miroslav, Exclusion and Embrace, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1996

(Published on 29th October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 44)