Many history buffs, (me included!), can fall head over heels for a historical figure they’re learning about. We admire their achievements that change the world and course of history, and their often great adventures and experiences we only wish we had! Their courage, resilience, intelligence, wit, valor and so many other things that made them great captivate us and make us want to strive to be like them. These great men and women, across all time periods, countries and cultures seem to have lived the lives and made the impact that not too many have made in their lives. I myself admire and wish I could have had the adventures and contributions they made in the history books and if they inspire others to do the same, that’s a good thing. However, there is a detrimental side to the acclaim we give them. When we put them on this pedestal, we can often forget their human side. They become larger than life, super-humans, if you will, their achievements become unattainable to us “average Joes”. They become less connectable on a human level, almost unreal, in my experience.
One example of mine is in elementary school, like most kids, we learned about people like Christopher Columbus, or Abraham Lincoln and so fourth. However, I believe that it never registered with me as a little kid that they were actually real people! We learned all about what made them great, but not however, what made them human like us. I remember literally thinking (almost), that Abraham Lincoln was like Santa Claus, not really real! It was hard to wrap my mind around his actual existence as a real person! Now of course, I know full well he was real, but even to this day, something about him stops me from knowing him to have been as real as say, leaders today, or people I know. Same deal with many other historical figures too, like Columbus, or Darwin, or T. E. Lawrence. I do believe that this is due to projecting these people on these glorious pedestals, and not studying them on a human level as much. The little details that make them more like us, the stuff they did before they were famous, what was significant to them personally. I’ll use some of my favorite historical figures to illustrate:
T. E. Lawrence is well known for fighting for Arab independence during and after WWI. We know him from that famous “Lawrence of Arabia” movie and his battle at Aqaba, and him at the peace conference with Faisal. I’m intrigued by his adventures, and admire his love for the culture and how he truly connected with and loved the Arabs when many in his day were quite Eurocentric and imperialistic! However, many may be surprised that he did not enjoy those years at war, and did not like all the fame! He personally preferred the quiet years on an archaeological dig at Carchemish as a college student. There, he met his closest friends and developed a special bond with a boy named Selim Ahmed or “Dahoum”. Lawrence is less well known for this time in his life, but to him this was the most significant thing, not the “glorious” battles or the politics. The real Lawrence did not basque in the glory we credit him for, instead, choosing his own personal passion as the happiest time in his life.
Charles Darwin is known for his book “On the Origin of Species” and the theory of evolution central to modern science today. He was an amazing naturalist, and went on adventures shaping his later discoveries, such as his voyage on the Beagle. He had a loving wife and ten children all together! Many look up to him as the father of modern biology due to his groundbreaking discovery of evolution and the courage it took to defy the religious community in what is still a raging dispute. Despite all of this, in his personal life, he faced a horrific tragedy. His most beloved and eldest daughter, Anne, died from an illness at only ten years old. This was a huge blow for the loving father, and his health declined ever since. Anne’s death created a rift between him and his wife, Emma who was religious which spilled over to his works on evolution. Sure, Darwin did some amazing things in his life, but the death of his favorite child is something no one would wish to have in exchange for Darwin’s life.
These examples illustrate how we often overlook their own misfortunes and feel lucky we are more fortunate in our lives. Also, to realize what may have been the highlight of their life to us, could have been a burden to them. T. E. Lawrence was said to have been affected for the rest of his life after the war and felt unfulfilled. The time before the spotlight was on him was the highlight of his life to him. It really goes to show that fame comes at a cost no matter who you are. These not so pretty details make them more human to us. They share our feelings, our worries, our struggles. It exposes the raw unedited side to their lives that we like to edit out and only make room for the glory. Sometimes it’s better to just be you! Lastly, many historical figures have even more dubious lives and the legend part can take over much more dramatically…
Some prime examples are many religious figures, revered my many people around the world. Jesus Christ in Christianity can serve as an example. It is dubious (to the rest of the secular world), of his historical existence. However, assuming for the moment he did exist, there are so many stories and legends about his great deeds and miracles. Him literally turning water into wine, and feeding thousands of people, healing the sick etc, are believed by many to be true. Also, the Christian narrative of his birth, life, death and resurrection also add more layers to the legend. Many see him as the great
savior of humanity, the redeemer, central to Christianity. However, many often need reminding that he was in fact Jewish, preaching to Jews about Judaism and his views on becoming a better Jew! Not to mention, he came from an entirely different culture being a Middle Eastern man from 2000 years ago! The cultural divide between him and us would be dramatic if he came back to our world today! Jesus himself, as a mortal human probably wouldn’t recognize this “Jesus” we’re blabbing about! The legend surrounding Jesus is so great, one needs to dig very deep to try to figure out about him just as an ordinary human. No magical powers, no divine influence, just Jesus from Nazareth as his friends knew him. Since to my knowledge, there is no solid secular evidence of his physical existence outside religious texts, it is unclear if he even did exist! If we could see the man as a human, with failings and worries and adversity as well as the impact he made, I feel that the religious and non-religious could appreciate him even more than through all the hearsay and legends.
Overall, all of this makes historical figures seem out of our reach, almost god-like. I think we need to take a new approach and try to see their human side, those “undesirable” parts of their lives, their mistakes, failures, tragedies, to really make a connection with them. They are no longer “larger than life”, but have lived a real life with all the ups and downs. We should try to find out what was significant to them personally, and not decide what was great in their lives for them! Doing so I believe would help boost our own self-esteem and make them more “down to earth” for us. They can teach us that fame is not the ultimate goal in life. That we don’t have to do world changing things to be great. We can do things that are significant to us personally and not worry about pleasing the world. Not to mention, why can’t we be significant to someone else? Maybe not the whole world or history as a whole but to one person. Being a leader, a mentor to someone, being a devoted friend or family member. Excelling in a career, following a passion, why can’t that be fulfilling too? The historical figures we look up to did all of those things at some point too, even if we don’t know about it. I think the real message to learn when learning about the great people in history, is that you don’t have to be in the history books to make an impact! Sometimes, the best way to study history is to take a step back, and connect on the human level. After all, it’s people like us that will one day give the truest impression of what life was like to future historians anyways!
“To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world”….