Historical Impact: How the Past Can Shape Us

By John Heckman – The Tattooed Historian

John Heckman is better known to online audiences as “The Tattooed Historian.” After obtaining his graduate degree in history and working alongside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, John began his brand of history in 2015 and sought to help the history field reach new and more diverse audiences. Through his work across many social media platforms, as well as his podcast (The Tattooed Historian Show), John has had the opportunity to work with universities, not for profit organizations, the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, and many more in the United States and Canada to ensure that the past is not forgotten. He currently resides in Pennsylvania.

There are moments in your life when history finds you; you do not find it. This was especially true for me at a young age. In fact, without history, I may not be here today.

In the summer of 1988, I was a mere seven-year-old boy. By that point in my life, I had been through a lot. That was the year I had to reconsider playing Little League with my friends because I had developed asthma, a couple of years earlier, my father left, and I grew up only seeing him for about four hours every other Friday. The kids at school teased me because my parents were divorced, and I could not keep up in gym class or at recess. For a child, it was a tough start.

But that summer, I went on a road trip to visit a place just 40 km east of my hometown which would impact me greatly: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

This trip was one of those rare moments with my father when I saw him for an extended period. It was the first real chance I had at trying to understand him. For much of the journey, he was typically silent. Portions of the trip were uneventful. But then we arrived at the great battlefield, and I was instantly intrigued by a place that had garnered the imagination of millions of people around the world.

Why were so many people coming here, I wondered? It was crowded and noisy, and I didn’t understand why everyone seemed to be interested in empty fields dotted with hundreds of stone tablets and monuments. Our visit took place on July 2, 1988, the 125th anniversary of the great battle which occurred there during the American Civil War.

My young mind was racing. I wanted to learn more. I finally had something which could not be taken away from me, a sensation I had felt when my father left or when I was unable to play baseball with my friends. This was a moment when history could save someone – me.

For some of us, history is an escape from daily life, an unfulfilling job, a disagreement with a loved one, a sense of things not going the way we had intended. Losing ourselves in the pages of history allows us to see a different path forward and show that we can overcome our troubles.

Consider the power of the historical narrative. Not only have historical events or people shaped nations, but they have shaped us as individuals. We learn what not to do. We wish to be better than an ancestor who may have fallen short in some way. We seek to understand the world around us even in the most trying times.

History allowed me to experience the lives of others through a historical lens. I could lock myself in my room and read for hours on end, losing track of the here and now while gaining a deeper understanding of the past. This was before the internet came along!

We see this now as a society when it comes to various online formats. Defining Moments Canada has been a leader in providing a digital platform for the historical narrative and our collective awareness of the past. We are in the midst of a revolution in digital humanities and the social sciences. Evidence of this can be found here on DMC’s website through previous projects, and their reach to new audiences is undeniable. There is little doubt that students can make a great and positive impact on the interpretation of historical knowledge. Consistently, that kind of work can be found right here on Defining Moments Canada.

Historical gaming permits us to place ourselves in a virtual world to solve a puzzle or challenge our curiosity. The rise of these types of games on platforms such as Twitch, showcase the interest our society has in watching someone navigate through a simulated period in history (whether it is “true” or somewhat fictionalized). I have even found a home there to play historical games and chat with historians from around the world!

Podcasts which focus on the past provide us with the chance to listen and learn from those who may know more than we do when it comes to our niche in the field of history. There are, quite literally, scores of ways our minds can be stimulated through voice-based media discussing the most intricate details of our history.

Augmented or virtual reality projects now permit all of us to plant ourselves in numerous places and times in the eras of our ancestors. The visual power of these media has not even begun to be realized, as we are just scratching the surface of the technology and accessibility to the masses.

Before our lives were so drastically changed by the pandemic, I often visited schools to talk about history. There were many times when I brought in original artifacts to discuss various events of the past. This kind of hands-on learning didn’t exist in 1988 when I first discovered Gettysburg, but it has now become quite common. And the use of objects for historical learning is being revolutionized thanks to 3D printing technologies, which allow museums and archives an opportunity to print copies of historical artifacts for use in the classroom. And somewhere, in one of those classrooms, will be another student who was just like me, feeling lost, different, and in need of an escape.

During these trying times, we have heard some historians in the media discussing previous pandemics and giving us hope that there is a blueprint for life to get back to normal. Indeed, some historians have become cheerleaders for the future reminding us that we’ll get through this, because we’ve seen and overcome this kind of crisis before.

History not only provides us with facts and figures, but it also gives hope. As a young boy, engrossed in texts about the American Civil War, I learned that even in the toughest times, you can find a way. History helped me overcome the bullying, wheezing, and so much more. It gave me a path forward when I became sober nearly eight years ago. The past gave me a sense of optimism through a long and drawn-out divorce. And it still influences me in major ways to this very moment.

The historical narrative can provide hope or a moment of solace that is so necessary in our day-to-day existence. There are times when history makes us uncomfortable, but it is best to embrace that feeling. Those learnings give us a chance to make the world a better place for having understood the moral of the story.