The story of the departure ceremony (13): “Other people’s eyes”

About the distance between then and now

The Cloud by Gea Karhof, a miniature in our first pilgrim book of hours Seasons of Life

“One of the most fundamental – and perhaps one of the most frustrating – limitations of human beings is that they are trapped in their own heads. We see the world through our own eyes, from our own personal perspective. We can’t do anything else. Even when we find ourselves in different circumstances – a different partner, a different job, emigrating if necessary – we take our highly individual perspective on the world with us. Seeing the world from other people’s eyes is simply impossible.

We are not only trapped in our own heads, but also in our own time. No one can see into the future. The past seems a lot easier to access. But is that really the case? How big is the distance between then and now?

There are two pitfalls. On the one hand, there is the inevitable tendency to project our own emotions and motives onto others, even if they are people from other times. This can lead to gross distortion. We can’t just attribute our contemporary way of thinking and acting to people who lived fifty or five hundred years ago. “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” wrote Briton L.P. Hartley.

However, it would not be right to look at the past exclusively through binoculars. Because people weren’t that different in the past. One of the oldest known lines in the Dutch language reads: Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic anda thu, wat unbidan we nu?, in other words: All birds are already nesting, except you and me; What are we waiting for? A sigh that is just as palpable today as it was when it was written, some thousand years ago.

People of the past are people like us; thinking and acting in a way that fits within the context of their own existence. But that context was different from ours fifty or five hundred years ago. Historians try to map and fathom the circumstances of the past in all their complexity. And in doing so, they try to gain insight – through the barrier of time – into the motives, choices and emotions of people who lived at the time. Sometimes, with a combination of hard work and luck, a direct connection seems possible. A document, an object, a sound suddenly brings us almost physically into contact with the past; The barrier between then and now seems to have been lifted for a moment.

A historical sensation, the historian Johan Huizinga called it. But such a sensation is rare. No matter how closely we study the sources and how closely we connect all the pieces of the puzzle, we usually don’t get much further than an incomplete reconstruction of someone else’s story. Because in the end, the past remains separated from us by an unbridgeable time gap. We can only look at it through our own eyes, from our own perspective, with our own questions in mind.

In this way, every historical story remains a story about ourselves, told from our own time. And that’s exactly why history has to be written over and over again.”

Dolly Verhoeven in our first pilgrim book of hours Seasons of Life.
This text was read by Jeroen van Zuylen during our monthly departure ceremony at sunrise, the pilgrim’s lauds.
Dolly Verhoeven is emeritus professor of Nijmegen History and the first professor of Gelderland History (RUN).

Image: ‘The Cloud’. It is a hand-coloured etching with gold leaf by Gea Karhof, one of the miniatures in Seasons of Life.

The Cloud, Gea Karhof
The ‘cloud’ – Gea Karhof, miniature from the contemporary book of hours and pilgrims Seasons of Life