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Tyrannical History

Moments do not occur in bubbles. Though our memory is composed of blips of experience we sometimes lose sight of the ways in which we evaluate these experiences. Never do we have an experience without relation to our other experiences; instead, each experience occurs with an immediate reflection in which we compare the new experience with experiences of the past.

There are distinct benefits to these process: each moment occurs with background information that informs our response. If each day was filled with completely new experiences, life would be an exhaustive series of moments demanding response. Our experience gives us context, a wonderful gift that tells us how to respond to a situation. When we recognize a common feature between the moment and a memory we can apply what we have learned and act.

Despite these benefits we face significant challenges under such a system. New experiences are never truly “fresh” experiences and we easily fall into a trap of evaluation. How does this new experience compare to the past? Evolutionary benefits aside, we often use our experiences to make judgments. The gourmet industry exists because of these skills: now a cheese burger is an item of comparison in which we can evaluate it and expand our judgments outward. History gives us a the terms of comparing the now with the then and establishing expectations for the future.

The biggest pitfalls of this process of comparison comes in endeavors where history holds considerable sway. Perhaps politics is the largest domain for these dangers- often we see politicians whose actions are less tied with the demands of the moment and more invested in the actions of the past or possible reactions of the future. Though our brains are designed to respond to the moment, our society is a complicated system in which moments must be evaluated in multiple contexts. Today’s world is far too complicated to rest decision making on the historical record, the distant future or even the needs of the moment. One must consider each domain and make the best decision.

The greatest challenge our politicians face is the chore of making decisions that affect the past, the present and the future. Tasked with comparisons of what was and what might be, considerations of the present often lead to bad choices biased too heavily towards one domain. Balance is the key.

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