Humble pie

Working and studying in the field of history, I’ve slowly realized how important it is to approach the process of creating history with a healthy dose of humility. I guess that’s true of any area of study, actually, but I’ll stick with history for now. It’s a field where it can be very easy to fall into the mindset of trying to impress people with your knowledge, put forward a confident face, and emphasize what you do know, glossing over what you don’t. People may think this will get them a job – and maybe it will – but ultimately the ability to be a historian comes in the moments where you know that you don’t know…instead you have to find out.

Beyond that, you need to have a gratefulness for the people around you who make it possible for you to do your work – the business people in your museum, the custodians, the people whose history you capitalize on. You have to be willing to sometimes say, “I don’t know…Can you tell me more?” As I’ve been working on this fellowship, it’s been tough to step outside of my comfort bubble and share half-formed thoughts or guess at the use of bits of ceramics sitting on a table in front of me. I’ve felt stupid. Then I’ve realized that this is not about knowing everything, it’s about being willing to learn. And to learn, you have to take risks and sometimes end up humbled.

You have to listen as much as you talk. You have to be willing to sit and listen to long stories and source the public for their knowledge, because ultimately you’re telling this story for them and from their past. You can’t have the attitude that you’re above people because at the end of the day you depend on them. Historians only exist because there are people to write history about, and we need to have a sense of gratefulness to and appreciation for those people who we use to create our academic and professional careers. Writing my senior thesis was humbling in that I realized that the paper was not about me impressing my peers or a grad school program – it was about bringing to light and giving a voice to people who previously didn’t have one, letting them be as much a part of the historical narrative as the famous people who have dominated it for so long.

I guess I wish we approached history the way I wish we approached parties: instead of showing off and getting wrapped up in peacocking and telling our own stories, we would better serve the world by seeking out those not included in the conversation and asking them to share their own experiences. We should realize it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do what we do – there are so many factors that have enabled us to be doing whatever we are doing. Not everyone gets the chance to pursue their passion as a career. Lots of amateur historians and history lovers who by some turn of fate or another didn’t get to pursue a career in history would love to be where we are, delving into archives and seeing behind the scenes.

I was humbled the other day to see a comment from a community member on a photo of my fellowship class asking whether the program accepts people 55 and older. It made me realize that while I’ve been whining about my schedule, other people would be more than happy to take my place. Since then, it’s reminded me to be grateful for the chance to be here. When working in and studying history are exasperating, I wish we would remember how privileged we are. And I wish we would remember how many people have stories we still need to tell.

Day One: Historic Deerfield Fellowship, Pt. 2

This was originally posted on Around the Grove, the blog of the Universities at Shady Grove.

Today, I started my fellowship at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts at full speed with a series of tours and talks orientating myself and the five other undergraduate fellows to the museum. I’ve never been to Historic Deerfield before or even this part of Massachusetts, but it’s a huge change of pace from the D.C. suburbs. Things are very quiet and scenic, and we fellows are living in historic houses on the main street that comprises the museum. It’s lined with houses from the 1700s and 1800s and surrounded by small towns and green landscapes.

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For lunch today, we climbed to the top of a local mountain (ironically named Sugarloaf, just like one of our mountains in Maryland) to look out on the landscape below, the Connecticut River Valley. We learned that in Native American folklore, the mountain was made by a beaver deity whose head was decapitated and fell in the middle of a lake. Apparently, from above, the mountain looks like a beaver’s head and body, bordered by the Connecticut River!

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We also had a tour of the museum’s exhibition center and a look behind the scenes at the collection, where we will be doing the bulk of our work during the fellowship, learning how to handle historic objects and learn about the past from them. Then we ended the day with a tour of a tavern from the 1700s, learning about how taverns were one of the important centers of town life and socialization in colonial America.

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We also went on a brief walking tour of the town. As you can imagine, it was pretty hot out, but we learned about the history of the raid of Deerfield in 1704, where French and Native Americans invaded the town and killed and captured people as part of an ongoing war between the French and English settlers and various Native American tribes. This raid is one of the town’s claims to fame, but has been told in a very skewed manner over the years, so we discussed the importance of examining how history is told and representing a variety of points of view.

DSC01111.JPGThe start of a new job in a new place, with new people is admittedly very overwhelming, especially with such a packed schedule, but my motto has become “one hour at a time.” Just take things as they come, don’t look too far ahead and stress too much about the future, because you never know what is coming up ahead, and you’ll get too overwhelmed.

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A few more things I’ve been learning in these overwhelming beginning days: Trust your skills and capabilities. Be willing to admit when you don’t know something, and approach your work and learning humbly. Don’t stress about trying to impress people or be the one who knows everything. And push yourself out of your comfort zone, but also have compassion on yourself; you’re only human and we each have our own things that are tougher to do.

DSC01104.JPGPat yourself on the back for the things you accomplish, big and little, and don’t get hung up over little mistakes, mix-ups and places where you don’t seem as accomplished as others. Be patient with yourself; learning and developing professional skills is a process!

One foot in front of the other

The entire car ride up here, I felt my stomach churning with anxiety, my chest tightening with every thought of the unknown that lay ahead. By the time the car turned onto Main Street, I had tears in my eyes from the stress and I thought I was going to blow chunks.

Once we pulled into the small gravel lot though, it was time for action. The next few minutes were a blur of new faces and signing papers and trying to think of something clever to say but drawing a complete blank. I took the keys and said thank you and hopped back into my parents’ car to drive to my new summer lodgings, a weathered, wood-paneled addition onto the back of a brick Federalist house, bookending the finish of a tree-lined street.

My excitement picked up as I ran up and down the stairs, exploring the nooks and crannies of my new home and deciding which room to pick. We hauled my obscene amount of newly purchased professional clothes and bags of tattered “I guess these are still nice enough” shoes into the spacious, if a bit run-down, room. Then my parents suggested we go for a walk through the historic district before they said good-bye for the night.

As we headed back down the road, underneath the shade of the trees, I turned to my mom and said I missed her and dad already. My stomach squeezed at the thought of going back to have a proper conversation with my new co-workers. I’m not famous for talking well in groups, and while I’ve made vast improvements in my social anxiety, the pressure of making a good impression on people I need to get along well with for nine weeks was a bit overwhelming.

But somehow, I hugged my parents, and went to have an awkward but interesting conversation with my newfound colleagues. Little did I know I would be laughing until I cried with some of them, swapping stories about crushes, and staying up way too late for recent college students who now have to wake up at 7:30am.

First weeks are always incredibly stressful, especially if you’re an already anxious person; meeting people whose names you can’t remember, navigating new relationships, figuring out how to answer all the “nice to meet you” questions. Even worse is hearing the laundry list of assignments, rules, and protocol and wondering how on earth you’re going to accomplish this all without crying yourself to sleep every night. This week was no different, but I was incredibly blessed to be able to connect with the people around me like I’ve never been able to do before. This meant that, while my chest still felt like caving in at times, I was able to stretch myself rather than just feeling completely overwhelmed and defeated. I guess the following is a stream-of-consciousness collection of lessons I’ve been learning over the start of this journey:

Other people are stressed too. I tend to assume that because I struggle with anxiety, I’m the only one who’s having a tough time, but that’s not true. People might only give you little glimpses of it, but if you pay attention, or maybe just even put yourself in their shoes, you might realize that other people are overwhelmed too. It can be helpful to be understanding and cut people a break, and to feel less alone, like you’re the only one struggling. Similarly, I think sometimes you need to open up and let people know you’re overwhelmed – nothing major, but just a bit of honesty with someone who you think might understand. You might receive an obnoxious pat reply, you might get some encouragement, you might find you’re not alone. But it’s good to be genuine. In my opinion, people can’t hate genuine. And it does more good than pretending you’re superior to others.

Stretching yourself to your limits is terrifying, but it really does help you to grow.

Don’t approach life trying to prove yourself to other people, but be humble and willing to ask about what you don’t know and remember how much we all have left to learn. Classmate and colleagues can sometimes, admittedly, feel like competition, but we’re all here to learn from one another. We all bring unique experiences and backgrounds to the table, so it’s worth learning from each other rather than, a) beating ourselves up for not knowing enough, or b) dropping names and dates to prove we’re hot stuff.

It’s not about being the best, but doing the best you can.

At the end of the day, whatever work you do isn’t about furthering your career, but rather contributing to your field, and ultimately to the world. Approaching work with this kind of attitude is humbling, and can help take the pressure of impressing people off of projects and let us reconnect with the joy of doing what we’re passionate about.

It’s okay to be a quiet person. Some times this week, I’ve felt guilty for not talking enough or not volunteering an answer because I was too nervous or not being able to think of something to ask a person I found myself standing next to. I’ve felt bad for having a quiet voice that gets talked over instead of commanding attention, for being tentative instead of self-assured. But then I contrast my experience with the self-assured people who seem to have it all together with the down-to-earth, vulnerable, relatable people who connect with you without pretenses, and I realize that, while it’s always good to continue pushing myself to be less tentative and fearful, I don’t need to be ashamed of being someone who listens more than she talks. We need people like that in the world to create safe havens where we can be ourselves, not be judged, and feel understood and comfortable.

And I have to cut myself some slack some times…we can’t do everything perfectly. If I don’t say much at a meal, that’s okay. I’m not one for small talk; I’d rather have a one-on-one or small group conversation where we really get to know each other or come up with inside jokes or really, genuinely laugh until I cry…the kind of laugh where you look ridiculous but are in such good company you don’t even care because you know they won’t judge you.

Even when I make “mistakes,” what matters is that I’m trying. I’m stretching myself a little further every day to overcome fear, push through anxiety, and dismiss hesitancy. While other people, myself included, may only see my shortcomings compared to an ideal of gregariousness and forthrightness, I know how far I’ve come. They don’t know that I used to never speak in class. They don’t know that two years ago, I considered quitting college. It’s easy to let shame darken our hearts because of societal stigma or bad reactions we’ve gotten in the past. Celebrate the obstacles you have overcome; let them remind you of the strength you have built and the mileage you have traveled to get to this place. The things that have cut you up inside (or perhaps even out) and left you broken have given your a story, made you wiser, stronger, more loving. The world needs broken people to pour love out into lives of others. I supposed there’s a time and place for a confident facade, but more and more I wish we made more room for an honest conversation.

More importantly, I firmly believe that, as cheesy as it sounds, empathy and humility can make a big difference in communities, relationships, group dynamics, and our lives if we let them. If we’re vulnerable, we can have deeper, more satisfying relationships, but we have to open up if we want others to see who we are so they can love us. We have to be present if we want to make connections that make an experience rich and fulfilling.