A small white box with odd cone shapes attached to it had landed in the field a quarter mile from our farmhouse; this was sixty years ago. It was easy for a nine-year old boy to imagine that this discovery was from “outer space,” even with the remnants of a balloon attached. But there were clear instructions to return it to the weather survey of the University of Illinois, so the budding scientist could understand its purpose.
Curiosity got the best of the boy. What could be inside it? The boy was already keeping charts of temperature, wind directions, barometric pressure and humidity on a daily basis, as if his record would somehow add to the inscrutable science of meteorology. What kind of information did this unusual box contain? Opening the box was a challenge. As he pried it open its contents came out in pieces, none of which made sense. He had no way to understand the apparatus that was inside, or to make use of its pieces. There was no obvious barometer, thermometer, hygrometer or anemometer. Having opened the box whatever information it contained was lost. The effort that some faraway alien had put into this instrument and its scientific payload was lost.
The next time he found such a box a few years later he returned the “weather balloon” to the Post Office as instructed, feeling remorse for the earlier trespass.
We may treat the payload of history and cultural tradition in a similar way, tearing into it and making no sense of its contents, or returning it to a place of expertise where someone behind closed doors can deal with it as they want. Neither is very helpful. When we give up trying to make sense of our heritage and leave the process of learning behind, or when we turn it over to others, we cheat ourselves out of the most precious gifts that life sends our way