There is, of course, a lot of chatter about “good old days,” but this isn’t exactly what I’m trying to talk about here. Many people seem to have a sharpened enough sense of perspective and reality that they don’t make “good old days” statements, aware that any time before now, at least in the United States, was worse for most people, since liberties and psycho-emotional freedoms for, say, people of color and women and queer people are new and continually improving. It’s hard for someone with at least a little good sense to talk wistfully about the days when kids were better mannered and streets were cleaner, when those were also the days when women were routinely given forced hysterectomies and those Americans racialized as Black had to use separate drinking fountains.
It’s not those kinds of general days of yore I’m interested in but something else, a more specific, situational nostalgia, like for the early years in a business or club or university. I’m going to call these “glory days.” Like, “When my kids were growing up in this neighborhood, we were a tight community, a giving community, one where I could send my daughter out knocking on every door until she found that stick of butter. But you know, you have to put something in to get something out, and people just don’t do that much any more.” Or, “When I first started this business, it was crazy. We’d be here until midnight shooting ideas around and drinking whiskey, come in at 6 a.m. to swab the decks. Customers would come in without money and we’d just write their names on a chalkboard with what they owed. It would all work out. Sometimes a friend would come in after and clear up the check for whoever couldn’t pay.”
It’s not so much a vague “things” were better but that people were “doing it” better, whatever “it” might be. More fun, more organic, more wild, more generous, more adventurous, more this or that.
I hear these stories everywhere I go, and I used to spend a bit of time thinking I’d just missed out, over and over. That I was coming into every job, every town, every neighborhood a decade or so past its prime.
But now I’ve come to see the problem more as a habitual way of thinking rather than an accurate observation. I didn’t miss out, I was just surrounded by people who wanted to tell me that story. Locked on the past, which actually wasn’t better, but when it’s gone, gone away into oblivion with all the evidence, it’s easy to say and to truly believe it was better. To believe you were happier at 25 or 30, and it must have been because your job was more fun or your friends more friendly.
But maybe it’s just you, getting old and tired, regretful and scared.
Let’s say you start a business a 27. You and your buds are fresh on the scene of life, just dating around, still a few years ahead of meeting your spouse or “establishing yourself” or buying a house or starting a family — and a few years before you’re even that worried about that sort of conventional validation. You’re going out all night and then somehow able to function the next day. You have a lot of energy and a lot of freedom, and your heart hasn’t broken much yet, and you aren’t very scared of losing stuff because you don’t have much to begin with. Fast-forward to when you’re 45. You’ve got a mortgage and kids in college maybe, complex relationships, your tastes in people and definitions of adventure might be changing, and if you stay up past midnight one time you feel like you’ve been in a train wreck the next two days — I know, because this new milquetoast exhaustion has recently become undeniably apparent in my body.
Same with a neighborhood. Move in when you’re young, maybe you’re just having kids or dogs, life is a great mystery and adventure, everything is new. Then you’re 55 or 60, and everything has changed so much on the block, and you don’t understand why people aren’t sticking around much now or why it’s not the community you remember.
Then you get a new, young employee with new ideas or new young neighbors with different ways of living, and instead of riding that beautiful and refreshing wave and taking your new roll in the sidecar or as a mentor or loving ear or whatever flower is blooming for you now, instead of evolving with the constantly evolving and wondrous world, you smother these newbies with your stories about how amazing the business or neighborhood used to be and all the crazy things you did then and how it’s just not as fun now, just not the same. When the truth is probably that you’re just not as fun now and are definitely not the same. And concepts of fun and belonging and needs of people are changing, as always, and there is always a new dream blossoming in front of you if you choose to enjoy it.
What I’m trying to say, and say as much to myself now that I’m aging as to everyone else, is — why don’t we be part of the new dream rather than constantly judging it against the old dream?
How much peace could we bring to ourselves and each other if, when the time comes and comes again, we allowed ourselves to be secondary characters, supporting actors, to those arriving after us — instead of providing them with a bar from the past they’ll never reach, because it’s long gone and not even real.
What if we choose to see the glory days as, always, now?