I have a test for you. I want you to begin carefully observing how often people use the language of “these days”. Allow yourself to notice how pervasive and unquestioned it is. And mostly, I want you to notice how logically and morally empty it is.
“These days” language alludes to the idea that in our modern times, things have gone to hell, whereas at some unspecified time in the past things were great. It’s the language of “they don’t make them like they used to.” It’s the language of the vast multitude of “Why Millennials Are Stupid, Lazy, Entitled Assholes” articles that seem to sprout up like weeds on the internet. It’s the language of “Make America Great Again.” It’s the language of original sin – that we fell from grace and are in a long, slow slide away from integrity, decency, and real values.
This is a story that we have fallen from grace since a time when we were honorable, noble, and whole. It asks us to be ashamed of the current state of our society and species. It tells us that things have just been getting worse and worse and worse, headed toward our inevitable and imminent collapse.
If you really listen, this story is everywhere. It is encoded deeply within us, like a parasite. It is our first shame story.
Most concretely, with this shame story, we see the way things were in our childhood and insist that this is the way the world ought to be. We see that the pizza shop down the street from our childhood has gone out of business and mourn that it will be replaced by condos. We watch the new condos rise and disparage the soullessness of modern architecture. Why can’t they make them like they did before, with real beauty and architectural integrity? What is happening to our quaint neighborhood, now overrun by outsiders? The way the neighborhood was when we were a child is the way it ought to be, the “right” way. We seem to forget that thirty years ago often our family was the newcomers and the old generation was asking the same questions of the new pizza place that had replaced the barber shop which had been there for years.
With this story, we stand in stark rejection of the change around us. We interpret every change as a corruption of some idealized past. We think of history as a slow departure from a time when everything was right and true.
The Bible is explicit in promoting this story. Eden after all was heaven on Earth. And we were banished from it because we are dirty, broken sinners, never to see it again. Humanity has never approached the perfection of our birth place. We’ve just wandered farther and farther away.
This belief is rooted deep in our DNA – at least for most Westerns. But this belief pops up in modern society just the same.
Take for instance, our attitude toward computers and smart phones. Many in liberal Western sub-cultures hold an attitude of shame toward these new devices. It goes something like this:
“Back when we were growing up, we didn’t have these highfalutin computer phones! We knew how to look each other in the eye and have a real conversation. We really connected with one another. We cared about human connection and relationships! These days, people can’t handle one minute without looking at their god-damn phones. They need something to keep themselves entertained. They look at their phone because they don’t value human connection. We’d be much better off if we went back to how things were!”
Again, as with most complaints, there is some truth to this. Having meaningful one-on-one in-person conversations is a wonderful, vital aspect of healthy, purposeful lives. And I am indeed concerned that our technology can and does often distract us from such opportunities for connection – certainly for myself. Absolutely.
But when was this time when everyone was so connected? When was this time when we cared so much about human connection? Because 20-3o years ago was not exactly the Golden Age of emotional vulnerability and connection. Certainly men, for centuries, have been actively discouraged from anything close to a real conversation. We would talk to one another about football, beer, and courting women. We taught our boys never to cry and to be “a man.” Therapy and other forms of emotional openness were seen as flaws and weaknesses. Yes, decades ago we were less distracted by technology. But, by and large, were they more capable of or interested in genuine connection than we are now? I don’t have any evidence to suggest so.
Or take “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” mentality about today’s products. It’s true – many manufactured items made today are significantly less durable than goods made in the 50s and 60s. Some are even made to not be durable so they need to be replaced more quickly. We can’t fully trust something that is made today will last a lifetime. I wish we did. But let’s also remember, the reason that things were so durable is often because they made use of significantly more (and in fact often an obscene amount of) resources and in doing had significantly greater impacts on the environment. Our manufacturing spewed pollution into the air and waterways, leaking into our ecosystems giving us cancer. There are reasons things aren’t made as durably, some reasonable, some not so reasonable. But the idea that this definitely points to the higher moral fiber of society in previous decades is ludicrous.
So I ask again, when was this time in the past that was so much better than today? For the vast majority of human history, slavery was the norm. Women were men’s property. Children were beaten regularly. Torture was a norm. The list goes on and on.
The truth is our culture instructs us to believe that things were better sometime before us, without any real evidence or logic supporting it. Our unconscious beliefs, therefore, tell us that things must have been better before. But all evidence points to the contrary.
Perhaps more importantly, this story is needlessly destructive. It is inherently draining and life-sapping. It suggests to us that we are slowly moving away from our best selves, quickly moving toward a future catastrophe. It moves possibility of a better tomorrow to the periphery.
The story we need is quite the opposite. The story we need tells us that we have gradually become more conscious, more capable, more genuinely interested in enacting welfare for all of humankind than ever before. This is the story most conducive to growth and possibility.
So why does this story feel somehow indulgent, naive, even damaging? Perhaps it is not because it is untrue. Perhaps it is simply because we’ve internalized a toxic shame story that we carry around with us unconsciously every day.