That Longing for the Days of Old

Copyright © Larry Johnson 2019

I have often pondered on the habit of the many who reminisce about things of days past. In conversations with family and friends we wax on recollections of how things used to be: the simplicity of life when measured with that of the present: when we seemed to have more time and were not so pressured and hastened. Or perhaps to wander through an antique store with romantic notions of how it would have been to use that old milk jug or that ancient wood plane. Maybe we ponder a time when it was easier to wind the car window up to the height you wanted and not need to manipulate a button with sufficient touch that the task doesn’t become vexatious. These deliberations have led me to question as to why many are predisposed to this pattern of thinking. Are we so disillusioned with the modern world as to crave for a return to times long concluded?

One consideration may be that the era we live in is too busy; and perhaps there is an interior longing that our modern times were alike to former days. Of course, there are those that will scoff. They will say that today we live longer in the developed world, our hygiene is much better with less disease and there are more options and attractions with which to concern ourselves. They will state that the perceived romance of the past has been overplayed. Indeed, this may be true, but I can’t help but think the scoffers have missed the point. It is true that despite the attractive style of old kitchenware, clothes, houses and tools and attitudes etc., life for our predecessors was tougher and devoid of the comforts we now enjoy. Unquestionably, there was not the local major shopping centre in which to while away the time, indulging in some impulse buying that our forebears had not the purchasing power to undertake. Their lives were consumed in work, providing for the family and the basic maintenance of their needs. Their focus was to live the best way they could with what they had: an unattractive and uninteresting proposition for us today certainly. How could we possibly live in a world without wi-fi, the Apple, the android or heaven forbid the mobile phone? With what did they occupy themselves? It may be proposed that our predecessors weren’t all that happy with their lot.

Ironically, the same people that scoff at the minimalism of past days will protest that our lives today are too busy, and we don’t have sufficient time for ourselves: and with the latter I agree. We live in a society not unlike that of ants. Darting back and forward, hurrying to this function or that; the children have this event they need to attend; the shopping needs to be done. I have to be home to see the game tonight or suffer the disappointment. I just don’t get enough time to myself and the grass still needs to be mowed. We judge that those of previous eras didn’t have particularly happy lives, yet here are we in heightened states of anxiety and frustration, and protest of our own discontent.

It is here I posit that our predecessors were no unhappier than ourselves. I even claim that they were less vexed than we in these modern days, mainly because they had less to be vexed about. They weren’t occupied with the gadgets and social pressures of today. It’s a case of if you don’t have what doesn’t exist, you don’t miss it. There were no IPhones, so they weren’t desired. Indeed, there was less enticement to the distractions and attractions that we now have. Recreational time was spent in simpler ways – reading, music, family bonding, meals eaten over a civilised timespan.

So then, what is the cause of this longing for past lifestyles, though not wishing to forego our current ‘comforts’; the attachment to which does not appear to have ensured our happiness. Some would say it is the neglect of God: and I have no doubt that this is the primary reason. However, what of those who don’t believe in God? Notwithstanding non-belief in our Creator, I am of the view our general expectations are simply too high. We expect to have the latest IPhone, television, car etc. but we are not able, so we become despondent. We see what others have, think that would be a good idea for us as well and submit to the impulse. The process leads us into a cycle of want-get-then want more; and the fact that sometimes we can’t have the item means our anticipations are disappointed. Our forebears didn’t have these high expectations. They worked, they provided for each other, engaged in simple recreational pursuits when able and by and large appear to have been content. The devices and so forth that we have in the modern day didn’t exist, so they didn’t miss them and made do with what was available. Perhaps our forebears were much more adept at modest attainment as they had less to attain.

At this point, if you would allow me a minor diversion, the thought occurs as to whether the whole system of civilization as we know it, certainly in the Western World, was really intended. The compression of populations within cities seems to me to be at odds with a stable lifestyle. By this I mean that living on top of each other doesn’t appear to be a very sensible idea for many people. We see evidence of this with the regular movement of families to country areas, the ‘tree change’ or ‘sea change’ as it were, with the feedback in most cases suggesting a positive outcome; psychologically at least. While we are undoubtedly wired to be social in nature, it is my view that a certain ‘space’ is necessary. I am aware that there are those living in the heart of cities that would dispute my claim: they that thrive on night life and life in the express lane. However, I doubt that they are in the majority and in any case many of them will one day tire of the tumult. It could also be stated that the mere fact of living closer together doesn’t necessarily result in a close community. Residents can live in a flat or unit and not realise that their neighbour has passed away. Loneliness and depression are rampant in the cities despite the denseness of the populace.

Apropos the aforementioned, another lament of which I hear is that the sense of courtesy and respect for each other has dissipated. From my own experience I can relate that upon moving from the metropolis to a smaller town many years ago, I was amazed to find so many strangers who would initiate a simple greeting as we passed each other in the street. It was a novel occurrence and I took pleasure in adopting the same habit. Years have passed and the small town has become much larger (five-fold at the time of writing) and regrettably the simple greeting has disappeared. It is very difficult to engage others in eye contact at all. I suppose the daily business of their lives distracts them from their surroundings and other people who pass through their environs. I have heard more than a few relate the same experience. Even on the highways the absence of the traditional and customary courtesy can also be observed. Not so long ago, it was a civility to allow other drivers some space when motor vehicles merged into the one lane. In these modern days with greater traffic density it appears to be a matter of competition.

If we are really to ‘steady the ship’ and seek that balance between the frantic nature of modern life and the stability of our ancestors, surely a like equilibrium is necessary in our living environment. Our antecedents did possess such a balance. In days past the population lived in smaller settlements with the possibility of not being isolated and yet having access to fresh air and country vistas. The Industrial Revolution put in chain ever accelerating developments that have led to the demise of many small villages and towns as well as the manic advancements in technology of modern times; resulting in, for many, that longing for the days of old.

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