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Idealizing the past

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Paul
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Posted 05/02/07 - 1:30 AM:
Subject: Idealizing the past
As the "Missing" thread reminds me, it seems like most people describe childhood as carefree days of joy which they wish they could return to, and adulthood as troubled, complicated drudgery. Is that really how things are for most people, or is it an illusion of perspective, a matter of selective memory?

Personally I remember childhood being a time of stress. In school, each grade sets up the rest of your life for you. Get a bunch of Cs in middle school and suddenly you can project graduate school doesn't look likely, your high paying job fades away and you're set up for being a failure. Then there's every day stress involved in living with parents who have power over you, the inevitable friction with family. Most importantly there's the stress of not having the freedom to do things on your own -- children just aren't allowed a lot of choices, their lives are guided, and I find it hard to believe an adult could want to return to that. There was nothing really bad about my childhood, but all things considered I'd never want to return.

Then there's how society as a whole always says things used to be great and have recently gone to hell. No matter that quality of life has been increasing by almost every objective measure (unless you live in Iraq), people insist that life was great and people were nicer back in say the 1950s (no matter that people were poorer, racism and sexism were rampant, being gay was illegal, domestic violence was often tolerated, colonial occupations were still in full swing, exploitation was the norm, the threat of nuclear armageddon was ever-present, and so on). People have this idyllic notion of a simpler, worry-free past and think a return to it will solve all the problems they perceive in the present. There's this belief in people that things are degenerating, both personally and for the world as a whole.

So anyhow, do you think these two ways of idealizing the past are connected, both symptoms of a human tendency? Why do people's minds work this way?
hyena in petticoat
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Posted 05/02/07 - 3:34 AM:

I don't know. Perhaps there is this "notion" that things are much "simpler" for say, a child than how things are to an adult. Perhaps, that's exactly a matter of perspective. Children, most of the time, do not see the "whole picture" so maybe, that is the reason why they have such a "more optimistic" view of the world?

Somehow, despite the limits, children do not take the full burden/ responsibility of their actions. As you say, they are "guided", so the "guide", which is in most cases, the parents, take greater responsibility for them.

And yes, perhaps "selective memory" plays a part in all these. Who wants to remember bad stuff?
e.
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Posted 05/02/07 - 3:43 AM:

Paul,

There is a long history of this psychological phenomena in literature. The English children's novelist Kenneth Grahame, called it 'The Golden Age' and wrote a book of that title, although his most famous book was 'The Wind in the Willows' which was an exemplification of the idea, describing a time of innocence, free from all the stresses of modern life.

This thinking locks into the 'Garden of Eden' idea in Christian theology, when life was simple and innocent; a time before the 'Fall'- Adam and Eve in all their happy innocence.

On a personal level, we do seem to have a tendency to look back on a 'golden age' as soon as we are old enough to do it, and to see our lives as a gradual fading from a perfect beginning. When we look at the optimism and energy of young children it is easy to see that older people are not the same, almost as if it is a chemical thing.

I felt that I had finally lost my youth at about the age of 25, and it was a physical feeling, like something draining away from my body. It is a bitter sweet feeling.

e.

Rudi
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Posted 05/02/07 - 7:59 AM:

e. wrote:
It is a bitter sweet feeling.

e.




I agree e. I don't miss all my childhood, just elements of it. A summer seemed to be a lifetime of being outside and playing and splashing about. The future seemed wide open, no doors closed yet. It was still ossible to be a sports hereo, a rock star, or a millionaire tycoon. It was all possible. I miss those elements.

Paul is right. We do often romantisize our youth. And there were tough times as well. I don't think I would go back either... but I wouldn't mind paying a visit.

wink

Rudi


pixi
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Posted 05/02/07 - 10:42 AM:

e. wrote:
On a personal level, we do seem to have a tendency to look back on a 'golden age' as soon as we are old enough to do it, and to see our lives as a gradual fading from a perfect beginning. When we look at the optimism and energy of young children it is easy to see that older people are not the same, almost as if it is a chemical thing.

it's true, it is easy to look at the past with rose-colored glasses. i can even look back on extremely dark times and find sweetness and fun. innocence offers itself to optimism which, when lost leaves bitterness. still, i try to feel that sense of optimism and fun in today. there is so much to learn and explore. no matter what has been lost, stolen, or forgotten there is so much more to see. i can look back on last year and reminisce with a fondness, if i try. why not look for the good in today?
libertygrl
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Posted 05/02/07 - 2:52 PM:

i think another reason that people idealize the past is that it relieves them of responsibility for their actions here and now, today. if they were to idealize or romanticize the future instead of the past, then they are faced with the challenge of making the future into what they want it to be. risks must be faced, and potentials for loss and disappointment.

on a related note, it amazes me how many young people (people in their 30's and 40's, for example) resign themselves to being "old". it's as if they've decided to start dying forty years early. in my work at a doctor's office, i've met a number of folks in their 80's and 90's who still have a lot of energy. maybe not as much energy as they had when they were 30, but still living a hell of a lot more than some 30-year-olds i know. when i meet folks like that, i always think to myself that i want to be like that when i'm 90. i also think to myself that 90 is a long, long time away, especially when you actually go after the things you want, believe them to be possible, and make the most out of every single day.

i guess it's our human nature to get comfortable with things and take things for granted, not being able to appreciate what we have in the present and always looking somewhere else for our happiness. looking to the past for happiness requires less responsibility for people than looking to the future, or to the present. still, i agree with pixi, that there are so many good things in life. we can find them wherever we look for them.

smiling facelib



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Posted 05/02/07 - 4:36 PM:

I don't idealize the past but I do enjoy revisiting it at times. My life has been rich with wonderful memories of friends and some family. I like to bring myself back in time and review my past perspectives. I have found myself to become rigid when I focus too much on the present and future. Probably something to do with my personality. Who cares as long as I have figured out how to manage (I hate that word) my quirks.
smokinpristiformis
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Posted 05/02/07 - 5:41 PM:

As one of the youngest guys here, I should tell you being young is very often quite hard. Quite frankly, when I look back to the years in primary and secondary school, much of what I see is confusion. sticking out tongue

These days I'm just trying to figure out what the hell I'm supposed to do with myself. rolling eyes
Rudi
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Posted 05/02/07 - 6:17 PM:

smokinpristiformis wrote:
These days I'm just trying to figure out what the hell I'm supposed to do with myself. rolling eyes



I think this becomes a major preocupation that follows many of us for some time... confused

Rudi


pixi
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Posted 05/03/07 - 10:36 AM:

libertygrl wrote:
i think another reason that people idealize the past is that it relieves them of responsibility for their actions here and now, today. if they were to idealize or romanticize the future instead of the past, then they are faced with the challenge of making the future into what they want it to be. risks must be faced, and potentials for loss and disappointment.

very true!! it's like a pre-programmed defense mechanism, no expectations--no losses. it is too easy to get caught up in this thought pattern especially after a few failed attempts.
Nihil Loc
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Posted 05/03/07 - 5:12 PM:

A passage from Herman Hesse's Demian:

"Then came those years in which I was forced to recognize the existence of a drive within me that had to make itself small and hide from the world of light..."

"Everyone goes through this crisis. For the average person this is the point when the demands of his own life come into the sharpest conflict with his environment, when the way forward has to be sought with the bitterest means at his command. Many people experience the dying and rebirth -- which is our fate -- only this once during their entire life. Their childhood becomes hollow and gradually collapses, everything they love abandons them and they suddenly feel surrounded by the lonliness and mortal cold of the universe. Very many are caught in this impasse, and for the rest of their lives cling painfully to an irrevocable past, the dream of the lost paradise -- which is the worst and most ruthless of dreams."
Paul
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Posted 05/03/07 - 7:15 PM:

hyena in petticoat wrote:
Children, most of the time, do not see the "whole picture" so maybe, that is the reason why they have such a "more optimistic" view of the world?


I recall when I was a kid (say, 8) I thought Reagan was going to start WWIII to kill us all, or overpopulation would pack ten people per inch, or trees would be extinct and the world completely paved over by the time I grew up (see Where the Wild Things Are -- it's popular enough many children must have this paranoia), or the drought we were in at the time would leave everyone dying of thirst. I didn't have the experience to put the world's problems in perspective... these days I'm more optimistic, optimism is something I've learned.

Then when you get into the teenage years things get really bad for most people.

libertygrl wrote:
on a related note, it amazes me how many young people (people in their 30's and 40's, for example) resign themselves to being "old". it's as if they've decided to start dying forty years early.


Yes, I've noticed that too. The future shrinks when you spend too much time thinking about it. Maybe it's partly a matter of organizing life into stages, once you have everything in order as an adult (career, family or whatever) there are no more clear stages to look to except getting old and dying.


Edited by Paul on 05/03/07 - 7:19 PM
hyena in petticoat
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Posted 05/03/07 - 7:18 PM:

Paul wrote:
I recall when I was a kid (say, 8) I thought Reagan was going to start WWIII to kill us all, or overpopulation would pack ten people per inch, or trees would be extinct and the world completely paved over by the time I grew up (see Where the Wild Things Are -- it's popular enough many children must have this paranoia), or the drought we were in at the time would leave everyone dying of thirst. I didn't have the experience to put the world's problems in perspective... these days I'm more optimistic, optimism is something I've learned.


Err...I'm not sure I can relate.confused
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Posted 05/04/07 - 10:21 AM:

smokinpristiformis wrote:
These days I'm just trying to figure out what the hell I'm supposed to do with myself. rolling eyes


Will, et al.

I'm sure I'm the oldest guy here, and I would say that these days I'm just trying to figure out what the hell I'm supposed to do with myself!

LOL e
libertygrl
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Posted 05/04/07 - 12:31 PM:

Paul wrote:
I recall when I was a kid (say, 8) I thought Reagan was going to start WWIII to kill us all, or overpopulation would pack ten people per inch, or trees would be extinct and the world completely paved over by the time I grew up (see Where the Wild Things Are -- it's popular enough many children must have this paranoia), or the drought we were in at the time would leave everyone dying of thirst. I didn't have the experience to put the world's problems in perspective... these days I'm more optimistic, optimism is something I've learned.

when i was in third grade living in germany, they showed us some really disturbing films at school during fire prevention week. one was of a woman who had just sprayed her hair with hairspray and then lit up a cigarette afterward, setting her hair on fire. i still remember her face, screaming. they also showed a house which had burned down, killing everyone that lived there except the dog. after that, i was terrified of dying in a fire. i closed my bedroom door every night and felt it for heat before going to bed. i made fire prevention manuals with my crayons and passed them out. i had an escape route planned for me and my baby sister.

also in the third grade, my parents took us to dachau to see the concentration camps. after that i was terrified to take a shower because i thought i would be gassed.

in retrospect, i think this fear came of being an extremely sensitive child. i also think it came of not feeling safe at home, being around people who would unpredictably subject me to extreme physical violence. my childhood was not all bad, though. i have a lot of good memories, too, and i like to revisit them now and then, like rj said.

over the last few years i feel i've come to a better understanding of the value of faith and how it affects your life to practice it, and i don't mean faith in a religion (although i have nothing against faith in a religion, if that's your thing). mainly i mean faith in people, faith in the future. and by practicing it, i mean that you remind yourself to have faith even when it's not coming naturally. it's a bit of work at first but it starts to become habitual after a while. takes a lot of stress off. this is what i think of when paul talks about learning optimism.



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Posted 05/04/07 - 2:37 PM:

e. wrote:


Will, et al.

I'm sure I'm the oldest guy here, and I would say that these days I'm just trying to figure out what the hell I'm supposed to do with myself!

LOL e
I often feel the same way, e.. What rescues me most of the time is the knowledge that it is ok to rest in what I have achieved up to now. Even if I never do another useful new task, I can continue with were I've left off forever. I also am aware, as I'm sure you are, that the discomfort I feel about being still is merely a problem in a cultural sense and, I couldn't give a rat's ass what others think...eek
Monk2400
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Posted 05/04/07 - 4:10 PM:

Its not just our personal histories that are idealizd. We idealize human history in general, usually to suit the needs of the romance of the momnt. Regardez bien our romantic infatuation with pirates, ninjas, and chivalrous knights. Or for us philosophers, with fanciful construct of classical Greece.

In some cases we move beyond idealization and well into pure construction, creating narratives about event streams that nevr ‘really’ existd.

Howevr, there is a precedent that might serve as part reason for this tendency in general.

It is the natural pattrn of epistemological development to move from the concrete, acutely specific towards the abstract, general, categorical. Our impressions of the world (phenomena) are always recorded directly as chunks of immediate experience. These are unique at each momnt. But we do not have access to a complete record of all our various sensations, nor would we necessarily want to. So what happns is that the mind creates concepts, which are categorical sets, which integrate any numbr of immediate, sensations into general impressions.

Each time we see a tree we see not just the immediate tree before us, but we interpret this pattrn of sensation in terms of all the previously recorded and integratd instances of similar sensual pattrns, and hence recognize this pattrn of sensation as a membr of a class, the categorical idea of ‘Tree’ which we through experience have built.

But, the actual unit of thought, the concept or categorical idea ‘Tree’ is not and nevr was nor will be an actual tree in existence. Hence, insofar as we have built a ‘Tree’, we will always see trees through the lens of ‘Trees’, which is essentially an idealization of real, actual tree experiences!

In the same way, we are continually reassessing the sum total of our past experiences relative to our self-concept, threading a narrative that defines for ourselves who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going etc. Our self-concept is constructd the same as the ‘Tree’—through an ongoing integration of instances of awareness of the self (doing, being). Our ideal self is usually not a true representation of our actual self, and it changes as life goes on. Hence, in looking backwards at memories, we look through the lens of our current self-concept and not the same self-concept that was present at the origin of the memories (the events recorded). So in this sense, evn ‘just remembring’ can be a mode of idealizing the past!

We move towards categorical thought for efficiency sake. The highr level look we can get at an event/person/thing, the easier we can relate it to othrs and understand it ourselves. Made more complex is that we also add values to memories, in addition to idealizing them for epistemological reasons. This adds another layr of idealization, as the worth of the events change in retrospect.

ramblin, ramblin' rose...

*peace*
Monk2400
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Posted 05/04/07 - 4:49 PM:

libertygrl wrote:
i think another reason that people idealize the past is that it relieves them of responsibility for their actions here and now, today. if they were to idealize or romanticize the future instead of the past, then they are faced with the challenge of making the future into what they want it to be. risks must be faced, and potentials for loss and disappointment.


lib, idealizing the future can have just as many negative impacts as the past. If a person is constantly living for ‘that which is yet to come—the new glory days’ well they are more likely to miss creating them in the here and now. I romanticize the future all the live long day, and oftn find myself wondring why it stays a future, why it remains an ideal.

I don’t know about relieving responsibility. Usually when I idealize some aspect of the past its because therein I find some love, some feeling of warmth, of self-assurance, of comfort, that is pleasant to behold.

peace
libertygrl
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Posted 05/04/07 - 5:41 PM:

Midnight_Monk wrote:
lib, idealizing the future can have just as many negative impacts as the past. If a person is constantly living for ‘that which is yet to come—the new glory days’ well they are more likely to miss creating them in the here and now. I romanticize the future all the live long day, and oftn find myself wondring why it stays a future, why it remains an ideal.

i agree that idealizing the future can have just as many negative impacts. spending all your time daydreaming about winning the lottery, for example, and doing nothing else with your life, can wind up being extremely costly both financially and emotionally.

nonetheless, i still believe it's the case with some folks that they don't like thinking about the future because doing so invokes a sense of responsibility. i don't mean to suggest that this is the case with everyone, only that it is one possible explanation for why someone may glorify the past. i think in these cases it's not just about idealizing the past, but clinging to it in the manner described in the herman hesse quote that nihil posted, as if one's memories are all the hope one has left in the world.
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