It is so common to hear folks yearn for a past age or time, one of supposedly greater simplicity, security, and prosperity. I dismiss most of these comments as the normal aversion to the painfulness of change and nostalgia for the days of one’s youth, when better health and a natural optimism characterized our lives.
Progress or improvement is never achieved by returning to the past because what we were back then was not the answer. Did we really pass through utopia and miss it? Our salvation does not lie in the religion of our grandparents or the politics of the Founding Fathers. In many ways they were more flawed than we are, as flawed as we might be. We can’t go back to the place we need to be religiously, politically, or economically because we have never been there in the first place.
It is said that those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. Fine, but what are those lessons. We often hear this thought in connection with the run-up to WW II. It is generally a broad indictment of the attempts to deal with Hitler and Nazism without resorting to warfare. The implied lesson is always that you are better off to start a war rather than let one come to you on its own terms. That may sound reasonable but has there ever been an unjust war the minds of those who initiated it?
The trouble with evaluating the lessons of the past is that it involves that so called 20/20 hindsight. Those who made decisions in the past did not have the benefit of our perspective looking backward. They didn’t know with certainty what was ahead or the consequences of those decisions.
So what then are the lessons of the past? Primarily that what we did in the past never worked, so going back there would be a waste of time. Progress and improvement means moving ahead and it involves some pain. If you don’t like pain, you won’t like change. However, if our goal is to map out a better future, then change is inevitable. If you are too comfortable where you are or where you were, you haven’t noticed the real lessons of the past.