24 January 2010

Looking to the past.

The past is a voice I feel strongly within me. I look to the past for guidance and for examples, both positive and negative, and it never fails to provide. Yet, often when I am discussing or debating the merits or vices of the past generations I find that people often fall into one of two errors when dealing with the past. The first is the belief that everything in the past was simply wonderful. The second is the belief that everything in the past was simply horrid. My position is that the past was neither, and both.

Take, for example, the Middle Ages. If there was ever a miserable age this was it. It is easy to fall into the first error when dealing with this period, what with the hundred years war, the plague, squalid conditions, the smell, an infant mortality rate of about one in three, a murder rate worthy of a war zone, and so on. And yet, I meet people who wish they could have a time machine that could take them back to that period, so enamoured are they with it. I cannot help but believe this to be a conceit that would not survive the first time the time traveller got a tooth ache without the benefit of modern pain killers. By the way, tooth aches back in the period were very often fatal.

The people of that time lived in a world of crushing conditions which we can scarcely imagine today. In every material sense possible, we are immeasurably better off than they. There are people living far below the poverty line today who have more power, more real power, at their fingertips today than the greatest kings of the past could ever hope to command. If material prosperity and good health were to bring happiness to people, then we must be the happiest generation of people ever. Instead we are the most aggressively depressed generation in human history. We have handed billions of dollars to various industries to try and keep our blues away, while our artists tell us repeatedly that life is pain and sorrow. How is it the people of the middle ages could live in what we would regard as a kind of material hell, and yet not be dragged under?

WH Auden once asked the question, how is that Chaucer and Gower and all their brothers anonymous could live in the time of plagues and war and famines and death on all sides, and yet write poems celebrating life and the good times? Seize the day, they told their readers repeatedly, for tomorrow could bring disaster and death. They expected nothing to last forever, neither joy, nor sorrow, and took each in their turn. The memory of joy sustained them through the times of sadness, and the memory of sadness made them feel their joy that much more.

To come to more recent times, there is the case of my father. I used to hear my father and his brothers, when they came together, speak of their childhood. These were all men who grew up in the depression and went off to fight in war, and yet, to them, these were the good old days. I do not believe this to be simply faulty memory or misplaced nostalgia: they remembered the hardness of the times clearly enough, yet they also remembered the other times as well, and the bad made the good stand out all that much more. Their good times were ten times as sweet because they surrounded by horrors.

I would never advocate that we should abandon our world and return to their uncertain, precarious existence. I do not worship them and have no desire to be one of them, nor do I wish to dismiss them all as miserable and irrelevant. I wish to learn from them what I can, and pass it on as best I can. We come from people who usually did the best they could with what they had. They worked hard and enjoyed what they could, when they could. They can tell us much, if we let them, and they can show us, by the way they lived, the wisdom of understanding that life is to be both endured and enjoyed.

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