While running errands today I had the great misfortune of being within earshot, almost involved myself, in my absolute least favorite conversation. An older person decrying the state of the world today, declaring that it’s going to hell in a handbasket and grouchily rattling off all the ‘proof’ seen around us. This mentality is one of my biggest pet peeves.
There are a lot of things I dislike about this type of thinking, not the least of which being the implication that things used to be better. I’m always inclined to wonder; when exactly were they better? Was it when we had separate drinking fountains, lunch counters and schools for African Americans? Was it when a woman being raped by her husband wasn’t a crime? Was it when child abuse was the accepted standard of parenting? Perhaps it was when missing a single day of work meant losing your job. Or maybe when the idea of losing a child wasn’t unspeakable but instead common due to poor or no understanding of germs. I don’t disparage the past and our history and I readily concede that some things have gotten worse. We are more polarized as a nation than we used to be, the state of the environment is horrifying, depression is on the rise among not only adults, but children as well and much of the food sold in grocery stores would be unrecognizable to our great-grandparents as something consumable. Progress is not a zero sum game and as time marches on we will not like everything that changes but that doesn’t mean we should stagnate and stew in what’s comfortable.
I understand the desire to cling to our nostalgic notions of the past. We think of the past as simpler and more care-free because we ourselves were simpler and more care-free. Of course we were, this is (hopefully) the nature of childhood. As we become more aware of the world we long for things to be less complicated but we don’t always stop to think that while we were riding our bikes, braiding Barbie’s hair and spending hours at the pool that someone else was fighting a war, toiling in a sweatshop or being victimized by a family member. This is why trying to ‘take us back’ to a simpler time will never be the answer. That simpler time doesn’t exist, at least not universally. The reality is that in the present we have overcome a lot and we also face a lot of challenges. We need to celebrate those triumphs and face the challenges head on instead of romanticizing the past.
Those old men at the DMV today were certainly entitled to their opinion, even if I didn’t like hearing about it. But whether they, or any one else likes it, time marches on. We, as a society, will stamp out things we collectively decide are unacceptable. We will learn to accept other things we never would have before in the name of convenience, security, wealth or health. Our children and grandchildren will take for granted the things we stamped out and in turn stamp out some of those things we accepted all the while wondering what we were thinking. I know this because this is what previous generations have done. We rarely think about the implications of child-labor because the concept is so completely foreign to us. And we wonder what in the hell previous generations were thinking with policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We have stamped it out even thought it was actually, almost unbelievably, a huge leap forward at the time it was implemented. So, our children will do the same. They will take having an African American president for granted. They will (hopefully) think the idea of civil unions instead of marriage equality is absolutely archaic. But they will probably also face challenges we can’t even conceive of at this point.
The world isn’t going to hell in a handbasket, the younger generation isn’t doomed, cell phones and reality TV will not be the downfall of society. The world will go on and, in 30 years or so, if you hear me complaining about the state of the world at the DMV please, tell me to shut the hell up.