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Historical Psychology: A Personal Case Study

Updated on December 30, 2018

How History Can Shape Us Personally

I suppose that I have always had a soft spot for the hippies, largely because of the music that came out of that era. But they were also a fascinating protest movement, a movement (at first) of middle class white kids who seemingly had nothing to protest. The hippies were members of the baby boom generation that came of age in the 1960s, and they were the wealthiest and most privileged generation in American history. Their parents, however, were part of the so-called "Greatest Generation" that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. After suffering so much trauma and struggling to survive during one of the most difficult periods of American history, these parents of the baby boomers had trouble relating and connecting emotionally to their kids. Rather than providing comfort to their children during times of emotional strife, the "Greatest Generation," which largely consisted of people seeking to repress their own emotional trauma, likely made it clear that their kids should stop whining. These spoiled children needed to just suck it up and be grateful that they did not have any real problems. So when the inevitable teenage rebellion came, hippies pushed back especially hard against their parents because of the lack of any real emotional connection.

As with all historical topics, I tend to approach this subject in a purely academic manner. I am merely making an attempt to make sense out of the past, a past consisting of other people living at a time and in places different from my own. It can often seem as relevant to my personal life as if I were talking about Physics, Math, or any other academic subject. But history is the story of people, and when discussing the last 50 years of American history, I am one of the people in that story. Just like the parents and kids of the 1930s to the 1960s, I have been shaped, at a fundamental level, by the historical events of my nation and world. And after almost 51 years of living on this planet, and about 25 years of teaching history, I am only now starting to get an inkling of how the events of the past century (and likely beyond) have shaped the person that I am, not just at an economic, social, or cultural level, but also at a deep emotional level.

My parents were not quite baby boomers. They were born in 1939 (mom) and 1940 (dad), so they entered the world at the tail end of the Depression and not long before the US entered World War II. Although they would have little memory of either of those traumatic events, their parents grew up, reached adulthood, started their careers, and began families during the Great Depression. And while neither of my grandfathers saw any combat, both served at some point in the military during the war. While luckier than most, my grandparents must have been scarred by these experiences, and as I reflect back on my grandparents and on how my parents raised me, it seems that I was raised with some of the same mentality as the "Greatest Generation": work hard and be successful, be practical, don't make a big deal out of minor things, avoid conflict, don't openly express too many uncomfortable emotions.

For much of my life, particularly since the shitty years of junior high and early high school, I have had a consistent, go-to emotional coping mechanism: remind myself that things could be worse. This is actually not too difficult for a history teacher. All you have to do is study history (or watch the news) for five minutes to be reminded that life could always be worse. In a world filled with poverty, disease, natural disasters, and war, what do I - a middle-class, white, male, 21st century American - have to complain about?

There is definitely something to be said for being appreciative of the fact that your life could suck far more than it does. It is a perfectly rational way to approach life, and philosophers and theologians for millennia have talked about the blessings of being content with what you have. The trouble is that we humans are not entirely rational creatures, and whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we have highly intense emotional needs. And trying to deny or rationalize away such an integral part of being human will inevitably have some negative repercussions. Like it or not, we are stuck being a member of the species into which we were born.

It would be bad enough if I spent my life in solitude repressing uncomfortable emotions. The bigger problem, however, is that I react to other people's problems in the same way that I do with my own. When I confront other relatively well off Americans expressing emotional pain, my tendency is to think that they should suck it up and recognize that their problems are not that big of a deal. While I may be correct on a purely rational level, this lack of empathy puts a certain limit on the emotional depth of any of my relationships.

So am I merely repeating the same line in my head that my parents may have learned when they were growing up? Have I essentially been the same type of parent as they were? In many ways, I have always been in awe of my parents. They managed to create a very safe, secure, peaceful household that was a blessing to me, my brother, my sister, and many of our friends who lived in homes less peaceful than ours. They were always there for all of the events, both big and small, in our lives. They accepted us as we all took our different paths. But looking back, I don't remember them being particularly nurturing emotionally. They were not particularly open in expressing affection toward each other or toward us either physically or verbally. You would rarely hear the words "I love you" in our house or hear people talking much about their feelings, particularly when these feelings were painful. We knew that we were loved, and I have always assumed that this was enough.

Like my parents, I have generally expressed my love for my kids through actions. One of the blessings of being a community college teacher is that I have had the flexibility to be very involved through every stage in my kids' lives. But particularly as my kids have gotten older, I would not describe myself as particularly emotionally nurturing. When strong emotions come out, as they often do with teenage girls, my tendency is to run away and wait until things calm down. While I am not crying with my kids and getting involved in shouting matches as much as my wife does, there may be also a certain distance between us. The trouble is that I have never really known what it means to be intensely connected to another person on an emotional level. I've always thought that I've been a pretty damn good father (and husband), but now I'm not so sure. Like most people I suppose, I have spent my life replicating what I assumed was normal.

Am I saying that my limitations as a parent and husband are all the fault of my parents (and their parents)? Needless to say, that is oversimplifying things. I also have to take into account my personality, choices I have made, and likely many other factors. In addition, when looking to history as one factor in shaping who I am, it is necessary to go beyond things like the Depression and World War II. There are also the events and developments that have occurred in my lifetime. To what extent have I been shaped by growing up during the stressful times of the 1970s? What was the impact of going through adolescence during the age of Reagan, starting my career during the dawn of the internet age, or raising kids with events like the "War on Terror" or the 2008 financial crisis in the background? And this quick overview of the past 50 years only scratches the surface of the events and developments that have likely played a part in shaping the person that I am.

One of the main complaints that people have about studying history is that it seems irrelevant to their lives. This may be partially the fault of scholars and teachers who have not attempted to make it relevant. And when we history people do try to make connections between past and present, we tend to do it on a purely intellectual level. It makes me think that there may be a market out there for classes and scholarship that blend the fields of history and psychology and help people to see, on an emotional level, how past events and developments have impacted them personally. It would be far more intense than a typical history class, and it would likely work best with people who are a bit older than the average college student, but if taught well, it could have a far greater impact than your run-of-the-mill general ed course. And maybe if I ever get more of a clue about what is happening inside of my head, I would actually be qualified to teach it.

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    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Very interesting Paul. I too am a historian, thirteen years older than you, and have recently set aside some extra professorial and organizational duties after 25 years to have a little more time to think, read, and write. My family (a southern mother and a Polish immigrant father) was actually quite emotionally expressive and connected and I have often thought about how that influenced me and my siblings and eventually my children.

      I recently (and to my surprise) wrote a short piece about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, thinking about how it (and other historical events and movements) shaped me and my parents of course. There is probably much in all our lives that could be reconsidered through the lens of history, sociology, psychology.

      I found your essay interesting and thought provoking. Blessings in the coming New Year.

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