‘Never ask, “Why were things so much better in the old days?” It’s not an intelligent question.’ (Ecclesiastes 7:10)
There is often no shortage of people in churches who look back fondly on the past. In times gone by there always seems to be more vision, more energy and more faith.
A similar tendency affects sports clubs too. Whether it’s the quality of play or the social scene after matches, the present is almost always compared unfavourably with the past.
When I got involved in my Student Union in the early 1990s former students would return and regale us with stories about the ‘golden age’ of their years on campus. The past always seemed to be more radical and exciting.
It even happens with the homelessness sector in which I work. Former colleagues from the most challenging environments will enthusiastically reminisce about incidents and characters. Often, they speak with an affection and humour very different to how they spoke at the time.
Humans have a deep appetite for nostalgia. As I enter my late forties, I can feel its allure more and more strongly than ever.
Seeing what we want to see
The legendary cricket writer, Neville Cardus, wrote about the sport in the 1920s and 30s. At that time many bemoaned how much better the sport had been in previous ages. Cardus wrote:
“The Golden Age is always well behind us. We catch sight of it with young eyes, when we see what we want to see.”
Nostalgia is alluring, but it is not to be trusted. It is the result of the continual, unconscious editing of our memories and experiences.
Our memories are neither neutral, objective or infinite. Some experiences we select to remember and re-tell, and others we choose to bury. We compress multiple experiences into single situations. And we filter experiences through the lens of our present situation and current thinking.
Nostalgia is seeing what we want to see.
Growing up, I often used to hear my Dad, Gordon Kuhrt, question the idea that ‘things were better in the old days’. He is always keen to offer a balancing perspective on any nostalgia.
He said to me recently “When we look back, the summers were always hot and every winter there was snow. Our memories are not always trustworthy”.
A few years ago, he wrote a book titled Life’s not always easy, mainly for his grandchildren. It reflects on the challenges he faced in his life, such as disability, complex surgery and many years of separation from his parents.
Sharing it in this way has helped the younger generations in our family understand him and the past, and how his faith has helped him.
We need to remain self-aware about nostalgic tendencies because if unchecked or unchallenged, they can be destructive in the life of churches, clubs and any institution.
It is discouraging and demotivating to younger people to be continually being told things were better in the past. It can also be divisive because it exacerbates differences between generations and does not help build bridges of understanding.
Learning from the past
We must learn from the past, but we don’t do this by putting on rose-tinted spectacles.
Times change but the essential human condition doesn’t. There is as much good and as much bad as there has ever been.
We see this in the current challenges of Covid-19. There is both silly and selfish behaviour but also amazing generosity and courageous kindness. It is always ‘the best of times and the worst of times’.
How we live in relation to both the past (and the future) is important for our well-being. These words of Maya Angelou’s contain deep wisdom and are, perhaps, more relevant than ever:
“If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. But the wisest course would be to be present in the present gratefully”