Everything was better before — and the more before the better

Brick wall with bicycle on it. Front wheel is a clock.

“The good old days.” “Back when I was young.” “Back when _____ was President.” “I miss the old days.” “Life was simpler then.” 

We look/think/dream back a few decades and see a time in the rearview mirror when the world was in ever so much better shape. When things were the way they were supposed to be. Definitely less uncertainty. Everything was safer. Less complicated. More human. People were nicer. Relationships better. Simpler. Gentler. Much less stress.

Maybe it helps us cope with current stress to think that at some point, like a few decades ago, the world was indeed a much better place. If we could only bring those glory days back…

Of course, it depends on who you talk to, as to when that “golden age” was.

The golden age of yesteryear

My parents and relatives (“the old grownups”) would animatedly talk about their golden age. That being the 1930s. In spite of the Great Depression, it sounded like a pretty good time to come of age in. At least from listening to them recount memories. To me, the kid, it just sounded like an old time, long ago, that I couldn’t relate to.

Look further back into history and we’re likely to conclude that certainly the 1800s were full of change. Industrialization, waves of emigration, railroads, steamships. Must have been totally crazy. Then we assume that in centuries before that, life went on like it always had, with little or no change for decades. But if we could actually time travel and ask a person from a century or two ago, they would be unlikely to agree that life was simpler or better then.

Back to the ’50s

For much of my life, I’ve heard that the good old days was the 1950s. Because perfect. Or darn near perfect. It was a time of prosperity and growth. People had jobs that paid well. Families were stable and not confusing. People took time for each other. There was less stress and rushing. It was a better world. 

A man could get a good job that lasted a lifetime and provided for his family. Without needing multiple advanced degrees. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity for a growing middle class. Suburbs expanded as all the new families formed after the War set down roots. Life was good and possibilities endless. 

Except, it was also a time of Jim Crow. Segregation was very much alive in many places, with no indication it would ever change. Which is why students at newly desegregated schools required military escort to attend classes.   

Traditional marriage was strong. Or seemed so on the surface. Because fewer divorces. But a lot of those families suffered with abuse that no one would listen to.

While employment prospects were good for men, women were not so much included, except in limited (subordinate) roles. Also, women couldn’t have credit cards in their own name. Or a lot of other things.

The ’50s was also the age of McCarthyism — the very real witch-hunt for hidden communists that made everyone a suspect. Plus the Cold War was really heating up. Everyone wondered when the Bomb would explode. School kids learned how to take cover under their desks.

I was very young in ’50s. Only have a few memories of my own. Like a winter with huge snowdrifts in our driveway in Sweden and digging tunnels into that snow.

Oh, and studying the first few pages in the Swedish phone book. Those stayed the same well into the ’60s. Titled If the War comes, it was several pages on what to do when and if war struck. How to evacuate in an orderly fashion. How to protect yourself when the A-bomb was dropped. And helpful advice, like not to eat food that had been exposed during the A-bomb explosion. Because radiation fallout.

Fascinating stuff to a kid. Enough to give you nightmares for weeks.

So maybe not everything was better back in the ’50s.

And I don’t truly think many of us would truly like to turn the clock back to live in that decade again.

Or was it the ‘70s?

For me, the golden time to bring back might be the 1970s. Because after all, I came of age during that decade and several life changing events took place then. It’s a time etched into my mind forever. And easy to dream back to, feeling that life was somehow better then.

Yes, I know that certain ’70s fashions have been reviled ever since and some people feel that whole decade should best be boxed up and hidden away. That said, several ’70s fashion trends have made comebacks, lasting longer in revival than they did originally.

There’s a problem with declaring that a time existed when the world was better and we should bring it back to make today great again: The actual years of that elusive golden era vary, depending on when you grew up!

Explanation 1: Those were the formative years of our lives

One way to explain our persistent longing for yesteryear is that certain periods in our lives leave greater impressions than others. There’s the time from mid-teens through the 20s. That’s when we cease to be children and join society at large. Our coming of age. Key events happen along the way: Graduating High School, going to college, landing the first real job. Plus dating, marriage and starting a family.

Those are all events that leave impressions on us. For the rest of our lives. Years later, when we’re in the middle of career and family, those years can seem ever so carefree and simple. 

Because we long ago forgot the obligatory teen angst or just how overwhelming the world seemed when we got our first job and first apartment. 

Then again, we were young and 30 seemed like old. (As in the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30!”) We could afford to be idealists. Reality would creep in later.

It’s a normal transition that generation after generation goes through, with some variation depending on the state of the world at the time.

Brain studies of how we remember events from a long life do show a marked spike in the number of events recalled from the teens and 20s. With fewer events recalled from before that age and also fewer from later (mid-life) years. So we’re in a sense pre-wired to have a “golden age” of the years around age 20 to recall and dream back to.

Explanation 2: Today is just scary

Another reason for longing for past times may be that we feel uncertainty and even fear about what today and tomorrow will bring. Because we know we can’t control the change. The job market changes. Relationships end. Things that seemed to be dependable, are all of a sudden gone. We get older and at some point have less energy and ability to keep up with the pace of change.

It’s easy to look at today’s news and conclude that the world is on the brink of going to hell in a hand basket. As I write this, the Middle East actually could erupt into major war at any moment. The local TV station carries daily terrorism updates, just in case we’re not scared enough. And we apparently need to train our kids (any age) in how to survive a school shooting.

All enough to make some time in the past when we felt more in control look very enticing. And us wanting it back.

Fear and pain are strong motivators for action. But we have to be careful. Just wanting to avoid a current pain, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to rush back into something that was, in its day, just as full of fear and pain and maybe even more so.

Moving forward

If I dream back of past glory days because those were the formative years, then that can be something to spur me on to even greater things today. Because look what happened back then. What was possible. And I’ve grown as a person since then. I have more life experience now. This kind of looking back can be encouraging and a source of strength for dealing with today’s unknowns.

On the other hand, the reason for longing for past days might be that all I see in today’s world is uncontrollable change. The wheels about to come off the bus. A world where I no longer feel relevant. 

Then I need to take a deep breath and make myself realize that the world back then, in the glory days of the past, was also full of change and scary things. That we navigated. And made it through. Because we’re still here.

No matter how much we’d like to turn the clock back on certain aspects of life, it’s not going to happen. So we need to find ways to look forward, instead of being stuck in the rearview mirror. 

My driver’s ed teacher drummed into me that I should definitely check my rearview mirror every few seconds while driving. So I’d clearly know what’s around me in the traffic. But the full attention needs to be forward, because if I don’t, well, I’m going to hit something really, really soon. And that will be bad.

A better exercise than just dreaming back to old days and then trying to force them onto today to make the world great again, is to explore what specific aspects it is that appeal from back then. And see how the essence of that might be integrated into my life today. Without throwing out good change that has taken place.

Mindset about today

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-27, 34 NIV)

Jesus’ words don’t mention yesterday or a golden age. They’re about the present and the future. And our (futile) efforts to control them. 

When we escape to the past, it’s often because we feel that right now the world is out of control, or at least not all that we wanted it to be. The past feels safer. If we could only bring it back.

The words from the Gospel of Matthew compares our lives with birds. I don’t know what the consciousness span of birds is. I do have experience with cats and dogs. They are by and large in the present. With occasional bursts of longing for something future. But it’s immediate future, as in “I want food” or “I want out (or in)” — a pretty direct change of current circumstances. 

They also do recognize things and people out of the past, so there’s some lasting memory. But rather fuzzy, it seems. Catch the cat a while after the fact and take it back to the crime scene. It will sniff around and look at you like “Whoever did that?” Definitely life in the present.

Called to live in the present

We are not called or designed to live in the past, like endless versions of Groundhog Day.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

Part of what makes us unique as humans is that we can grasp not just the present, but also look forward towards a future that hasn’t happened yet, speculating about what might happen and how that could play out. 

As well as recall a lifetime of past events. And more, since we can transfer knowledge. Thanks to that, I can know that things happened hundreds of years before I was born and see how that helped shape the world I’m in today.

Often, we get sidetracked though. We are so busy either rushing into the future to shape it or worried about what it will do to us. Or we take refuge in retreating into the past. Even trying to resurrect it, because it seemed so much better than right now.

We’re often not very good at living in the present. 

Being able to recall times in the past can be a good thing. It shows us what we’ve been through, what we accomplished (and could presumably accomplish again) and gives us shared experiences that connect us with others. Those are good things.

It’s only when we retreat to the past out of fear of today that we need to be concerned. Because we can’t (nor would we really want to) return to a time that already was. It had enough of its own worries.

Life is best lived well anchored in the present, with a clear look forward. And occasional glimpses in the rearview mirror to make sure we’re still on course.

When tempted to check out from today and go live in memory land, just remember that this today we’re trying to escape, will in another few decades be the simpler, safer, gentler time that a new generation will most likely look back to, going, “I wish I was back in 2019. Life was sure better then.”

Except you and I know that it really wasn’t.