The Past is a Foreign Country

Over the last several years I have spent much more time than I'd like working with people who have a hankering for the past. Like a drowning man clinging desperately to a piece of flotsam, they cling to the idea that the past was better. You know what, it might have been. But it's gone. Clinging on to it like an article of faith very rapidly changes it from a spur to restore greatness, to an albatross hanging around our necks.

You can't have it back. Every actor in that screenshot has changed. In fact the stage it was played out on has changed too. If not because the stagehands have moved the scenery, then because you will now view it through today's lens made up of knowledge and insight garnered in between times.

The trouble is, people tend to spend time dwelling on what they did or didn't do or else view the past through rose-tinted spectacles.And if you're in doubt as to humanity's ability to overlook the bad stuff in our past, look no further than childbirth.

True, there are biological and evolutionary factors in play here but the continuing propagation of our species is contingent on our (or at least the female of the species') ability to blank out the painful in favour of the joyous times. Which actually is quite remarkable when you think that in the here and now, the bad crowds out the good.

Being able to look back with fond memories is a powerful force for good. But as Dara O'Briain said 
"nostalgia is heroin for old people"
It might be golden brown source of comfort but if you're not utilizing that other evolutionarily critical gift - the ability to learn from experience - it will leave you a hollow shell.

Still in doubt? Pick a recent decade. think of the trends. What was cutting and edgy became hip and groovy; which became pretty normal; which became quirky; which was then tired and eventually ended up as the sad old drunk in the corner of the bar in urine-stained flares, swearing at pigeons and maintaining that disco will never die.

LP Hartley may have been right. They may do things differently in the past. Too often though we are trying to recreate it. And that way dogma lies. And dogma will turn the most well meaning group of people into a soulless self-validating institution. 

By all means, look at the past with a rye smile. It's part of what you are today. But be aware that today is not yesterday. Until tomorrow. What? Precisely. This is why time travel films either fall over their own plot twists or are so simple as to be banal. 

All the time that we are tying ourselves in knots over the past and future, we overlook the now. Take a step. Just one step. You can follow it up with another. Or not. But that's a another question for another time. One step at a time. 

That's how futures are built. And histories are written.

Comments

  1. It reminds me of a song by They Might Be Giants that doesn't cover exactly the same perspective, but is close enough to seem relevant to me, called "Older." I'll put the lyrics below. Here's a link to the video -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2bo_u_YmW8.

    You're older than you've ever been
    And now you're even older
    And now you're even older
    And now you're even older

    You're older than you've ever been
    And now you're even older
    And now you're older still

    Time is marching on
    And time is still marching on

    This day will soon be at an end
    And now it's even sooner
    And now it's even sooner
    And now it's even sooner

    This day will soon be at an end
    And now it's even sooner
    And now it's sooner still

    You're older than you've ever been
    And now you're even older
    And now you're even older
    And now you're even older

    You're older than you've ever been
    And now you're even older
    And now you're older still

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