Wednesday, May 10, 2017


"When people are unhappy with the present and fear the future, they embrace the past".

In a spirited conversation my wife and I had recently, (which is really an ongoing series of discussions we have, and for which I am very grateful; thanks Nora), I said the above words, or something to that effect.  We both stopped talking for an instant, a bit surprised at what sounded pretty profound.

Today I typed this phrase into a Google search to see if I had heard or read it before and had just repeated it, not actually made it up in the course of our discussion.   The Google returns I received were chock full of phrases and advice for seeking and finding happiness, but I did not find a phrase similar to the above.  However, I did find an amazing article written by James Feifer on November 30, 2016 for Slate.  A link to it is below.

Feifer's article, written a few weeks after Trump's historic presidential victory, attempts to dissect the popularity of Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan, by asking Trump supporters when they think America was last great, then scanning the news reports and social commentaries of that time to see if those who lived during this perceived time of greatness actually believed in the greatness of the time.

To start, Feifer looked to the 1950's which accounted for about half of the responses to the question, when was America last great.  Unfortunately, Feifer found as much anxiety and unhappiness during that time as today.  And, when theses post WW2 war people were queried about their last perceived time of American greatness, the 1920's were often cited.  But again, evidence taken from comments made during the 20's painted a much more anxious mindset of the people living then than what was believed 30 years later.  In a nutshell, what Feifer found was that "I went looking for the good ole' days.  It took me back 5,000 years".

My belief is that there is a clear connection between a person's age and their fondest memories.  It should be no surprise to any adult who, while perhaps mostly happy with their lives, deals with the multitude of stresses and anxieties that we encounter, and so, in the majority of cases, remembers their childhood and/or young adulthood as a time with little or no stress.  Call it an unconscious realization that with each passing year we are one step closer to our mortal end, call it a longing for the energy and pure joyfulness of youth, or call it the little bit of jealousy that makes each aging generation look down their collective noses as the generation which follows, but it seems obvious, even natural, that advancing age might make one engage in "nostalgic narratives", as Feifer calls them.

A detailed analysis of which demographics led President Trump's advantage over the two previous GOP candidates, and ultimately, his victory over his democratic rival, and it is easy to conclude that white males, especially those with less education, contributed mightily to his victory, and indeed might find a call to past times an attractive narrative.  Certainly, those who cited the 1950's as America's last great time might only remember the clear superiority of the white male in terms of accomplishments, power and wealth.  The fact that this dominance was as much a result of prejudice, both racial and gender, social norms, and actual legal obstacles to those not white or male, is of no concern to those who recall a time when they were the only game in town.

What is more revealing to me, and more concerning, is that one might also conclude that America as a whole is adopting a mindset similar to one who is aging, who faces their imminent death, and so is nostalgic for a time when they were young, energetic and, perhaps, without understanding it fully, oblivious to the stresses of the times around them.  Because, isn't that really the crux of it.  We endeavor to shield our children from the problems of life, if only for a little while.  So, while one's early memories are filled with good times and pleasantness, it is not because there was no bad times and unpleasantness.

America is aging.  Since 1970, the average age of an American has increased a couple of years every ten.  In another few decades, as the baby boomers continue to reach retirement age, our country will be as "old" as it has ever been.  And that includes the influx of immigrants, which tend to be younger.
Are we experiencing, on a national level, the same inclinations that lead to reminiscences around the coffee table by those among us of maturing age?  Does it explain some of our anxiety about the changing demographics of our country, and the call for a return to a past that exists mostly in the memories of those who were shielded by the adults of the time from the problems of the day?

There is no way that life will ever be like it was in 1950, or 1920, or 1880, or in the Garden of Eden, or whatever time you might wistfully long for.  First, because time moves forward, and with it, mankind's understanding of life.  Certainly, it might be exciting to be catapulted back to 1776 when America gained our independence from England, but not if you are a women or a person of color because you were, for the most part, not a part of the excitement of that time.
But more important, the future is the only time frame that we can control.  The past is defined, the present only a fleeting moment, then it is a part of the past.  It is only in the future that we can create the best possible outcomes of our decisions, provide the best possible situations for our children, and enable those who live in those years, adults as well as children to, perhaps, actually believe that they lived in a remarkable time.


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