English novelist Mary Ann Evans (pen name George Eliot) once wrote “History repeats itself.” I have always wondered why. The obvious answers come to mind: We don’t study history and therefore we are doomed to repeat it; we only study the history of those in power; etc. etc.
A story comes to mind from my travels in Thailand that gave me insight into another possible explanation.
In 1996 I traveled to Asia for the first time. I chose Thailand after seeing my father’s photographs from his trip there. I loved the country from the first moment I set foot on its soil. About two weeks into my stay, I went with a local guide and a few other tourists to a park outside of Bangkok. Our guide gave us a stern warning.
“Once we enter the park you will likely see a man carrying monkeys on his shoulders. Beware! He lures tourists to pet the monkeys and take pictures with them, then he charges you a fortune for the photos. Just stay away from him.”
I nodded my head vigorously, determined to be the tourist that would not fall into the trap. I would not be fooled!
Armed with my knowledge and heightened awareness, I entered the park with my group. We all wandered off a bit, enjoying the greenery and flowers. A Thai man approached me wearing white shorts, a white t-shirt, and white sneakers. He looked like he belonged in a tennis club, except that he had two very large snakes around his neck. I was instantly mesmerized.
“Wow!” I said to him, “Look at the snakes! They are amazing!”
The man flashed a smile wide and bright, revealing a set of perfect teeth.
“They are amazing, aren’t they,” he said. “Would you like to hold them? I promise they are perfectly sweet.”
“Absolutely!” I replied, stretching my hands out to receive the slithery critters.
The man put the snakes around my neck. They were incredibly heavy, but soft and dry. They looked at me with docile expressions and seemed perfectly content.
“Would you like a photo with them?” asked their owner.
“Yes, please!” said I.
You can probably guess what happened next. He snapped the photo and insisted I pay him an exorbitant sum for it. Luckily my guide intervened and we left the park without further incident. How could I have been duped? My guide had just warned me about the man, but apparently he used to have monkeys. Now he had snakes.
Why do I share this story with you? If we return to our original question of why history repeats itself, we may add another answer to the pot: Because we don’t recognize when we are part of historical patterns. Even if we study history, we may not be able to connect tragedies of the past to our day to day present life. My guide said monkeys, the man had snakes.