Comfortably Old

When were the good old days? The 1950s? The 60s? Your childhood? I’m confident we all have an answer to that question, even if our answers are different. Do you even subscribe to the notion of a “Good Old Days”? If not, then I would love to shake you by the hand and congratulate your moxie.

Most of the people I know are my age and older. Not counting our children; they’re too young to have any conception of some halcyon era before now, where every day was sunny and nothing bad ever ever happened ever. Where everyone played in the street and the food tasted like food.

I’ve always felt like the idea of “The Good Old Days” was misguided at best, and that human culture was on a generally upward trend of progress and innovation. Then 2016 and 2017 got going, and I began to realise that the value of human experience could go down as well as up. More or less.

The comforting bromide endures, that there were times that were universally better than they are now. People strongly believe this self-told lie / self-evident truth and feel that it idea is well worth sharing. There are politicians – and entire political parties – who have made careers out of such ideas.

I say ideas; I mean lies. It is a collective and selective memory of a world which did not actually exist.

The idea of “The Good Old Days” only covers about a decade or so at any given time. Take the 1950s for example. They were a time of relative abundance and freedom, but only when stacked up next to the horrors and the privations of the 1940s. The 1930s were an absolute blast, on the other hand, with greater personal freedom and lots more food. We choose to forget it because it ends in war.

This is the variable nature of nostalgia: the things which people yearn for now were only around for a few decades, if that; prior to that the world was a very different place. Yes, children were able to play in the streets a century ago, but most people did not live in sanitary conditions or have access to sufficient food or clean water. We all select the truths we choose to cling to for our support.

The past was a harder place to exist for almost all of us. Anyone unlucky enough to find themselves not middle or upper class, not a white man, would have experienced a life of drudgery and horror. It is only our relative affluence now which allows us to project back to the same socioeconomic strata.

The other side of this coin is the idea that life is so much worse now. It is taken as self-evident that society is on the decline. I deny this. The quality of life today is higher than it has ever been, by every measure. However, the feeling persists that we are all ensconced in humanity’s death throes. We are scared in to our homes, and away from the streets, by fear of a lawlessness which simply does not exist.

Not only is the news we receive from the media full of fear and horror, so are our personal sources of news: conversations, real or digital, with our friends and family. We seem to enjoy nothing more than sharing stories of pain, abuse and tragedy. This serves to eclipse the good. It prevents us from realising that one of our friends had a lovely picnic, a walk on the beach and a very merry Christmas.

This sense of decline seems to result in a strange, syrupy, sentimentality: the “if you grew up like me, like and share” Facebook brigade. Posts covering such insightful topics as “I [walked to school /  grew up in a tight knit community / ate chicken nuggets and beans, not houmous], why can’t kids today?” You had a happy childhood; congratulations: it does not mean the past was a better place.

This flavour of nostalgia seems to be quite the in thing on social media. For the current generation of new adults the equivalent, a mainstay of Buzzfeed posts, looks like this: “Every 00s girl [did / felt / wore] this.” – Translation: me and my friends did / felt / wore this; please validate me by saying you did too. Like me! It is a generalisation which cannot be supported, but which persists.

My opinion is that the nostalgia we commit to is innately attention seeking, self-congratulating and just a little bit sad. That’s judgemental, but it speaks of an absence in a life, which can only be filled either by happy memories of times long lost, or by the validation which comes from other people agreeing with what you tell them you feel. Neither of them speaks entirely of a full or vibrant life.

History documentaries offer a window on to a world of past glories: certainties upon which lost souls can cling for grim death; a safe place. The sensation must be very similar to seeing your home town on the news: I live there, that’s my place. Only, that place is gone forever, replaced by a world which generations to come will view with misty eyes, yearning for the glorious certainties of today.

Feeling that the world has moved on without you is uncomfortable and disquieting. It is lonely, cold and bitter. It makes us fear the shadows, in which nightmares dwell. It is natural, and it is the source of many of the issues which seem to perennially plague the world; the so-called populism of the new political dawn rising in the West hinges on this very sense of alienation from your own existence.

Today is a wonderful day, and tomorrow will be even better. We live longer than ever before, fewer people are murdered than ever before and there is always something good on TV. We live in one of humanity’s great golden ages: we should be celebrating our modernity and our successes. We have achieved great things, and we have the perspective to look back and see how bad things have been.

My daughter’s favourite question is “what are we going to do tomorrow?” I try to explain that she should enjoy today before she moves on to tomorrow. That tomorrow is a place that does not really exist. She smiles, ready to ask the same thing later. Some people would do well to stop enjoying yesterday quite so much, and start focussing on today. I think it would do them the world of good.