I went to a post-reunion picnic the other day and had the pleasure to meet up with some friends and acquaintances in the 60-to-70 age group. All of us had changed and all of us assured the others, “Wow, you haven’t changed a bit.”
As one could expect, the conversation quickly became immersed in the past.
Younger people talked far more about the present and the future, while us older ones discussed what was ailing us and how nice the “good old days” were. It’s not that we didn’t talk about unpleasantries, but rather when we did, they were seen through a filtering prism that took the edge off the ugly and, in some cases, put a twist of humor on them.
I think for some of us, except in horrific cases that leave an indelible mark on our psyches and result in lasting traumatic issues, we don’t forget, but rather, modify unpleasant events, circumstances and feelings to better tolerate and accept them. What could have been a stark black and white occurrence from the past becomes a milder sepia-colored remembrance. Ben Jonson aptly noted, “Memory of all powers of the mind, is the most delicate and frail.” He would also suggest that memory isn’t entirely accurate.
Most of the picnickers, like me, came from modest socio-economic backgrounds and all of them made profound advances in their quest of the “American Dream.” Nonetheless, every one of us was affectionately recalling and relating the events of the “good old days.” Most of us heartily agreed to the statement, “We were poor and didn’t have much, but we got through and, really, didn’t know how poor we were.”
Some of us did, however, know how poor we were, but that ugly realization was accepted as a fact of life and provided motivation to advance beyond our parents’ status both economically, but socially as well. In a strange reversal, my friends expressed sorrow that some people didn’t have their roots and concurrently didn’t have the compulsions to succeed.
It’s true that we have fond memories in most cases of the “good old days,” but actually if we strip away the colorization that our mind does, the past is not nearly as attractive as our “good new days.” Look at all the metrics our society can offer up for today’s success. Our health care system, with all its warts, has extended human life (disregard the COVID-19 mortalities) and has provided effective treatments for a wide variety of illnesses, including the scourges of humanity like cancer and heart disease. Our standard of living for nearly all of our population is far better now than 50 years ago. We have progress to make, but all elements of our population now have better access to all institutions in American society than they did fifty years ago. Our technological advances have made us more productive, creative, and entertained than we couldn’t even have imagined in 1966. Writing an article or book, without a word processor, for example, was nearly impossible for a hunt and peck writer like me.
As a society, we have made incredible strides in how we treat our unfortunate citizens whether they are victims of poverty, physical, psychological, and intellectual circumstances. I’d wager that our society is probably as philanthropic as any in American history. These accomplishments were only aspirational when I graduated from high school. Our society is far better now than in any time in human history. This is not to say we can’t progress in meaningful ways going forward, especially in areas of family relations and social concern, but compared to the “good old days,” we are close to even.
While it’s understandable that we fondly recall our past, it’s helpful that we embrace what’s good about our present and eagerly await our future with optimism and know with all certainty that a satisfying present bodes well for an enriched future.
Gary DeSantis is a Meadville resident and author of “The 6th Floor” and "The Redemption of Benjamin Lowell."