The Past Is a Gift

We were making fun of my Dad yesterday.

I don’t think he minded particularly, and I’m sure he won’t mind being mentioned here, in jest. His only crime – one to which he gleefully admitted culpability – was being one of those stereotypically grumpy old men who maintain that everything, including football, and the music choices of aqua-aerobic instructors, was better in the past.

Fortunately, thinking the past was better than the present isn’t an actual crime, because if it were, half this country – half of a lot of countries, in fact – would be behind bars. And it is a tempting viewpoint. Some things genuinely were better in the past. Vegetables grew in healthier soil. The planet’s climate was not so dangerously high. And until not so long ago, the music in the UK charts had some soul and relevance. Alas, it’s too blunt of a worldview for me. I can’t claim to believe it without cringing inside. Because whilst some things, for some people, were better in the past, a whole lot more things, for a whole lot more people, were anything but.

Now some people, once they realise the ways in which the present has improved upon the past, go way too far with it. They see the imperfection of the past as the perfect excuse to write off anything that happened five minutes ago. They think that just because a lot of things are better now, that the past can teach us nothing, and has zero value in the present. What is old is irrelevant. Everybody who came before us was a moron and a simpleton.

In my eyes, both groups of people are just as stupid and deluded as each other. In fact, if they didn’t hate each other, they’d probably get along famously. Because, deep down, they’re exactly the same. They might appear different on the surface – one sees “the past = good”, the other sees “the past = bad” – but what they share is their unwillingness to grasp the complex truth about the past…

… that it’s not so black and white as that.

I was thinking about all this earlier for no reason in particular, when I hit the second-to-last page of The Great Gatsby. I stopped reading, grabbed myself an index card, and scribbled out the following passage.

“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Who does that sound like to you? Here’s a clue: replace the names Tom and Daisy with “The British Government in 2020.” Isn’t it just… FUCKING PERFECT?

It was to me. I sat there not believing how perfectly F Scott Fitzgerald had – almost one hundred years earlier, completely accidently, and in just two sentences – summed up my exact views on the people I hate the most in the world. I also couldn’t believe how I’d managed to skim over that sentence every other time I’ve read the book.

And that tiny little example this morning is, to me, why you don’t write off the past. Because you do so at your own peril. You never know when a hundred-year-old book (which isn’t even that old) is going to give you a clue, or some relief, or help you make sense of the present.

Nobody is forcing you to love or hate the past – you’re inventing that obligation all by yourself. And remember too, that when you take one side or the other, YOU NEVER WIN. All you do is allow people who couldn’t give a shit about you to manipulate you for their own gain. This is how people like Trump and Boris win elections. And whilst we refuse to see the past as anything other than heaven or hell, they will continue to.

It’s entirely possible to see the past as having value without believing it to be some gilded age that it never really was. And it’s also possible to value the improvements we’re constantly making in the present without wishing to delete the past.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

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