Coming to terms with the past
"And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:39 ESV).
It seems so often that we long for what we have lost. We remember the deceased dog that willingly obeyed our commands. We think back to when our bodies could take more than they can now. We remember times and places with friends and want that back. We throw open the hood of our car and remember how easy it was to change a sparkplug before they changed things. We think back on our idyllic childhoods, or better yet the childhoods of our parents, grandparents or great grandparents and wish we could live in those moments. We look back on the price of gas, the price of rent, the price of bread and remember it fondly.
I am as prone to nostalgia as anyone I think. Whenever I have change in my pocket totally one dollar or more, I'd remember how I'd scrounge for change each month as a child. I'd get up to a dollar and then go down to the local drug store and buy a Fantastic Four comic and a candy-bar. Now, I could maybe get the candy-bar. For many years I looked back on "college" as some kind of utopia. I loved late nights with friends, chatting, drinking and smoking. Now, I do not smoke, rarely drink and certainly do not stay up late with friends. Post-collegiate friendships are much more limited and contextual. I simply do not "hang out" anymore.
I am also prone to nostalgize experiences I've never had. I imagine myself as a professor 50 years ago. I imagine myself discussing ideas in the faculty club, when there were such things, wearing wool suits and smoking a pipe. I imagine a time when one could, quite legally, hitchhike across the country and wish I could experience that. I even go back further in my mind and imagine a world where men worse suits of armor and settled legal differences with a trial by combat. In such situations, in my mind, I win.
And that is the problem with nostalgia. We remember the wins, the pleasures, the friends, the laughter, the joy. We forget that life sucked then too. In many ways, it sucked worse. Good history, in my opinion, reminds us of this. It keeps us from becoming too nostalgic and dwelling in a past that was not as beautiful as we see it.
Good history looks at documents and reminds us of facts. I was a quite prolific poetry writer during my college days. While I remember the time as one filled with parties and friends, I can return to my old writings and see how excruciatingly lonely I was. How is this in keeping with my memories of the parties? I write about going out and coming back, alone, to my empty room. I may rarely go to parties now, but when I do, I always come home with my wife. While I may miss those close friendships, the loneliness I feel now is always mitigated by her presence. While I rarely have friends who "drop by" as they did in my 20's, I have a person who is just about always there. I wrote in one poem that I had gone three days without speaking a word to anyone. I have no doubt that it was true. I wonder what my wife would think of it if I tried that!
I love to take my friends who are so concerned about "crime these days" to the Department of Justice's Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics site which tracks crime since 1961. There was this little uptick of crime in the late 1970's and a considerably smaller one in the late 1990's (during that idyllic time when I was in college). Other than that, violent crime rates have gone down markedly or in a couple cases stayed the same since the 1960's. Groups like the Justice Research and Statistics Association track violence for even longer, and it is clear the violence in America is no where near the level it was in the 1930's and looking at their graphs it is difficult to even imagine how "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" (to take Hobbes completely out of context) life was for people only that short time ago!
Sometimes we get into this circle of nostalgia. We start dreaming of the good old days. One person makes a comment about how good things use to be. The next person believes it. Before long we actually start to believe that things use to be better. I recently read an article where a historian takes a polemicist, passing himself off as a philosopher, to task for talking about how the money plays such a greater role in the culture "these days." The article did not even cite Milton Friedman's Noble Prize winning proof that while the gap between rich and poor may be increasing, the gap between poor now and poor earlier is such that the poorest people today would be considered wealthy by the standards of 40 years ago. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting richer. They only see themselves as poor because they are comparing themselves to the rich. The starvation which was so prevalent in America has been replaced with an obesity epidemic among the very poor. Now, that's not a good thing and we should move toward a place where the poorest people can eat healthy diets. Still, we have to admit that obesity really is a step up from starvation.
Now, don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with raising an Ebenezer from time to time. It is important to remember the good things that have happened in the past so that we can repeat them. There is also a problem with being so focused on dreams of the future that we miss the awesome stuff going on right now. The problem lies in the idealizing of the past. It lies in wasting the present because we want to remember a past that is better than it actually was.