Find Yourself in History

Explore the past and discover the Strangeness of Now.

You’re hopelessly lost without history—only instead of being lost in space, you’re lost in time.

Imagine you wake up in a new place and you don’t recognize the physical landmarks around you. Instead of lying in your normal bed at home, you find yourself under a round, tortilla-colored blanket. Under your head is a green lettuce-colored pillow, and your body is resting on top of a cushion made of hundreds of thousands of those little plastic salsa packets they give you at fast food taco places.

What’s the first thing you do?

Since you’re a person of today, you probably reach for your phone. Okay: the good news is that your GPS is working. The bad news is that you don’t have data so the map part isn’t loading. When you look around you, all your phone shows is your little triangly-arrow avatar pivoting around on a big, blank map. It’s not that you don’t know where you are; it’s just that you don’t know where anything else is—which pretty much amounts to the same problem.

In other words, you’re disoriented; you lack knowledge of the landmarks—the spatial context—that surrounds you. Once your data comes back on, you keep zooming out until you see some familiar thing, just fifty miles from your current position. You are now reoriented. You take the blanket and roll it up around plenty of those condiment packets to fuel you on your long journey. You point your triangly-arrow on the phone towards the Familiar Thing and begin your trek home.1The bigger mystery is how you ended up there in the first place. You suspect it might have had something to do with the time you yelled at that genie to “make me a burrito.”

Orienting yourself in time works in a similar way. Right now, you know when you are.2So when are you right now? You’re right now. But unless you become familiar with other moments and other eras in the past, you remain disoriented.

Only the genuine, evidence-based, academic discipline of history can reorient you. 

History in this sense is not about taking other people’s word for what happened. Real history is about engaging in a genuine, open-minded process of exploration. You ask open-ended questions about the past—questions that you don’t already know the answer to. You investigate genuine evidence, left behind by people long gone. You fearlessly refuse to ignore or deemphasize facts or ideas that contradict your preconceived opinions, or what you wish had happened, or how you desire things used to be. You draw logical conclusions from that evidence, and in the process, you begin to reconstruct pieces of the past.

Those fragments then become landmarks with which you can find yourself. That’s what this project is all about.

You are a weirdo—but that’s okay.

What you’ll learn when you join me on the historical adventures on this site, is that the present-day is fundamentally weird. That fact means that you and I and everyone we know today are weirdoes. When you travel on the earth and go to a foreign country you’ll learn that the things you thought were normal are, in fact, strange. When I lived overseas, I went to a cinema and watched one of the large number of Hollywood blockbusters in which a group of regular Joes and Joannas from the U.S.A. save the world from various natural disasters. In one of those flicks, there’s a point when these heroes show up and a population of thankful foreigners shout,

“Thank God, the Americans are here!”

And the entire movie theater erupted in laughter.

I had been getting into the movie, so it took me a full ten seconds to pull myself away and realize why that line must have seemed so funny to folks from outside the U.S. I was living in a different set of contexts, and the movie which in the U.S. would have seemed normal, instead seemed genuinely strange—and hilarious—to the audience around me.

The same is true with historical context. When we explore the past, we find out just how unusual the world of today can be.

History is the study of human possibilities.

The less silly way to put it is this: When we work to understand people who that preceded us, we gain valuable insights into what it means to be human. History is the study of human possibilities. It shows us what our species is capable of—when we’re at our best, when we’re at our worst, and when we’re at our everything-in-between.

It’s a lot to take in, but it’s going to be fine. I’m a professional historian, and I’m trained to assist people in situations exactly like yours.

My name is Doug Sofer, and I’m a weirdo. Just. Like. You.

Find Yourself in History

  • 1
    The bigger mystery is how you ended up there in the first place. You suspect it might have had something to do with the time you yelled at that genie to “make me a burrito.”
  • 2
    So when are you right now? You’re right now.