We’re fascinated with what came before us. We go to museums to see how people lived long ago. We flock to movie theaters to see historical films like Lincoln and Gladiator. We’re fascinated with old cars, old clothes, old hairstyles. When we tell stories, we almost always tell them in the past tense, as though they really happened–whether they did or not.
Most of all, we’re fascinated by the Good Old Days. When they were depends largely on the age of the person describing them: the 1950s, usually, but often the 60s, or the 80s, and sometimes even the 90s. Whenever they were, they were better, somehow, than today–easier, simpler, more moral, more patriotic. Not as busy.
I think it’s important not to forget our past, but as an amateur historian, I’m a little biased. The most important thing to remember about our past is that it can illuminate our future: successes of the past can show us how to proceed in the face of our own problems, and failures can become cautionary tales that show us what not to do this time.
But it’s important to remember we can’t return to the past, any more than we can return to our own childhood. No amount of patriotism or clean living will restore the Good Old Days. There are two main reasons for that: one, they’re gone, and two, they never really existed in the first place.
Don’t believe me? Test it for yourself. Ask two people, five minutes after a car wreck, what happened and you’ll get two different answers. Ask two soldiers, an hour after a battle, what happened and you’ll get two different answers. We remember only part of what we experience, and what we experience is only a tiny piece of an event–so our memories are, at best, incomplete. How much can we really trust someone else’s memories of Good Old Days we didn’t even experience?
The way to use the past is not to get stuck in it–it’s to take the good stuff and apply it to your life. Want world peace? Start with yourself. Act like Jesus, or Gandhi, or Siddhartha. Want racial equality? Act like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. Want people to listen to you? Act like Aristotle or Lincoln.
That’s the courageous way to learn from the past: let it make you better. Wishing for a bygone age, pining for the Good Old Days that never really were and complaining about today because it ain’t like it used to be is at best unproductive, and at worst cowardly.
Make tomorrow better. Improve yourself. There are plenty of examples you can find to help you get there.