A couple of us Offenders have had birthdays over the past week (Happy Birthday, Roger Fan!). As the years go by, I’m trying to resist what I consider to be an increasingly dangerous temptation: to indulge in nostalgia. I remember reading an interview once with a woman who’d been forced out of her homeland, and recalled it in glowing, mythical terms, like “the flowers were always blooming, the trees gave the sweetest fruit.” And I thought, “Well, that’s highly unlikely!” Of course, she was justifiably angry about the terrible injustice she’d suffered. But it seemed to me that it didn’t help matters to pretend that the past was objectively better than it probably actually was.
The same impulse towards glorifying the past, in my opinion, leads to conservative political thinking: somehow, America was better before the 60’s, or before all these immigrants arrived, or back when minorities “knew their place,” or before marriage equality, etc. The very smart political writer Frank Rich just wrote a great piece in NY MAGAZINE about how pundits of various persuasions have recently been wringing their hands over the so-called “death of America” – and, surprise, they all happen to be aging white male baby boomers.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Midlife Crises are perfectly understandable, and probably unavoidable (particularly for men). It’s hard to help wishing we could have all the energy, and see all the unlimited horizons, we did when back when we were in our 20’s. But there’s a big difference between yearning to be young again, and thinking that the world itself was somehow better back then.
So that’s my opinion: I try hard to remain anti-nostalgic. What’s yours? Do you believe the world was better, in whole or part, back when you were younger?
IRIS: Politically, I’m with you, DHH, times are much better now for non-white males. I would never want to go back to the “good old days.” But I believe our “perceptions” of the times might have been better in the past. News and internet feeds weren’t as instant and accessible, so I think people weren’t as “aware” of everything and as “fearful” of everything as we are today. My parents let us out the door to play in the neighborhood for hours without supervision and let me walk to school without an adult from the time I was in kindergarten. During the day, the door was left unlocked. In fact, a common form of punishment I would get was to be locked out of the house. I could have freely wandered, run away or ended up abducted and today, my parents would probably be arrested for child endangerment. I’m sure there were abductors, rapists and all the nefarious people who abound today, but our perceptions were completely different. In school, I was afraid of bullies and a possible Cold War era bomb dropping, while today, it seems to be just a land mine full of perverted teachers, mass shootings and drug dealing–or at least that’s my perception. So while I definitely think that we are living in better times, our awareness gives us a darker, more paranoid impression of the world.
ALFREDO: Gosh, I think it depends a little on your view of time and history: is history a linear story, a march toward inevitable human improvement? or a dystopian world where we are destined to regress and backslide? a spiral? a squiggle that loop-d-loops back on itself? A bunch of random shit – good and bad – that happens for no apparent reason? I guess I’m kind of a loop-d-loop guy – we loop back on ourselves, we repeat things. Think the Holocaust could never happen again? Well, then here come the Killing Fields and Rwanda and Serbia/Croatia, etc., as well as a new generation of saints and heroes. As to nostalgia – that warm and bubbly feeling about the past – I think a lot of it is wired into us as a psychological coping mechanism. The mind air brushes the past to make it easier to cope with difficult memories – the “sweetest fruit” that David mentions – unless, of course, it doesn’t, in which case you beat yourself back and blue over past mistakes that you can do nothing about (me, I’m guilty of both).
PHILIP: I’ve generally not been a nostalgic person. I don’t keep souveniers. When something’s over, I usually just move on. Which isn’t to say I don’t have fond memories of the past–there are a lot of amazing experiences and people I’ve met that I know are one-of-a-kind. I’m curious to see though if this changes as I get older.
JEROME: Funny – I’ve been trying to stick to a new habit where I deliberately dispose of mementos. If it’s of someone I still look upon favorably, the idea is that I’d rather enjoy the time we’re making now as opposed to just focus on the fun we’ve already had.
And if it’s someone I don’t look upon favorably anymore, well – you know.
ROGER: Things were just slower back in the day before communication technology became “the great accelerator.” Back in the day, communication was limited to just the telephone (sans answering machines) and the newspaper and stuff you’d get via snail mail. The expectation between first contact (send) and expected response (reply) was just slower because the means in which humans could communicate were very limited and not so instantaneous. There were no smartphones, no emails, no texts, no fax machines, no YouTube, no Twitter, no Facebook, no wifi, no 3G/4G, and the many, many other technological innovations designed to keep us connected and informed and aware 24/7. Back in the day, things were quieter, more serene, less rushed. Back in the day, things were just slower, quieter, and simpler. Things got done but not at the massively stressful manner of “expected instant response” that we live with today. The evolution of technology is inevitable and more often than not, necessary. In many ways, technology has made things better. But there are arenas where technology has made things worse. Being connected 24/7 and being able to be contacted at anytime and anywhere on earth on multiple communication platform, though convenient, has somehow accelerated our lives into hyper-info-warp drive and has made us more acceptably distracted and exhausted (and for many, less happy). Basically, we’re so busy being connected to the internet and each others through electronic means, that we have been robbed of the slow and often boring pleasure of being connected to ourselves.
So the world was a better place when we were younger. It was better because things moved so much slower that we could actually enjoy it, taste it, and savor it. It was better because we were more connected not to technology but to nature, to life, and the wonderfully, slow-moving joy of society’s social fabric. It would be nice if we could all just agree to collectively slow things down. De-evolve a bit from technology so that we can re-evolve as a society. Now that would be real connectedness.
QUENTIN: I’ve been a forgetful person since I was in Grade 1 when my homeroom teacher insisted to have both her and my parents sign my handbook everyday. I have decided that my memory has improved over the years, and I can vividly recall singular moments that I have experienced when I was six. Like Philip, I don’t think I’m too nostalgic a person. I try to focus on now and move on from the past. I am also a progressivist and technology advocate that believes today is better than yesterday. For example, I really don’t miss my splicer or cutting films on a flatbed or lugging those film cans to Federal Express office.
EMMIE: I think the world has always been a crazy tangle, containing billions of pockets of joy and billions of pockets of suffering. On a macro level, some things seem better in modern times, and other things seem a bit worse (human isolation, for example) – so it kind of evens out overall. On a micro/individual comfort level, I think things are better now (I love my 1-day disposable contacts! and being able to travel across the world in 14 hours).
I have “A Visual History of the World” book by National Geographic. Every time I leaf through it, every page looks similar – rape, murder, war, greed, suffering, natural disaster, death, poverty, more rape, more war, usurping, abdicating, succession, more death, more suffering, the new iPhone 5, etc etc etc. This book is what initially got me believing that the world has been pretty consistent for most of its life.
Personally, I’m glad that I grew up in a time when computers were not a big deal. I spent most of my childhood reading books, biking around the neighborhood, dancing to 80’s tunes in my friends’ basements, writing in my diary about candy, and doing chores (not super awesomely fun, but must be included in childhood pastimes). I loved so many things about childhood, but I prefer being an adult. As a kid, I truly disliked being told what to do all the time, and having no choice about school (even though I loved it – I just didn’t like having no other options). I like to think I’m not overly nostalgic about the past.