I suppose that it is a very human survival technique to to set aside memories of past tragedies and instead place the best times we had front and center in our minds. As the years go by we often long for what we call “the good old days.” If we were lucky enough to enjoy life with a loving family in a safe and secure environment we often idealize our histories and think of times past as being somehow so much better than the current world of uncertainty. We get stuck in a kind of fantasy desire to hark back to a time when things felt more stable and hopeful. Instead of looking forward, changing for the future, we cling to old ways that no longer work like they once did.
The young are generally risk takers. They see a future ahead that is filled with possibilities. The old often just feel tired. They have traveled through decades of hard work and they don’t really want to have to learn new ways of doing things. They sometimes fear the march of progress and dream of an earlier time when everything seemed to make more sense.
I adored my grandfather, William Mack Little, because he was a forward thinking man even as he reached an age beyond one hundred years. He viewed his life with a joyful lens that celebrated the wonder of progress and innovation. While he had delightful stories of his youth, he always remarked that those times were really difficult and that he would never want anyone to have to return to the hardships that everyone endured back then. Instead he marveled at the innovations that he had witnessed from one decade to another and urged me and my brothers to never become so fossilized in our thinking that we would be unable to appreciate the inventiveness of humankind.
Grandpa was in awe of advances whether they be in science, medicine, or politics and societal mores. He celebrated vaccines and medicines because he had grown up in a time when smallpox, measles, polio, tuberculosis and other dreaded diseases regularly took the lives of people across the globe. He recalled bitter winters when the only heat came from a wood fire and hot summers that bred mosquitoes and sweat. He spoke of the first time that he saw a city lit up by electricity and the first plane that he saw flying in the sky. He marveled at new laws that provided social security, Medicare and equality, often wondering why it took so long for our country to provide such safety nets for all people.
Grandpa had witnessed extreme poverty and want as a young man. Coxey’s Army of desperately hungry and poor citizens had marched through his town on their way to protest their fate in Washington D.C. He had watched white men taking advantage of Native Americans in Oklahoma to gain deeds to oil rich land. He had lost every dime of his savings when my grandmother became ill with cancer before the government protected the elderly with medical plans that ensured access to care. He rejoiced that our government had been courageous enough to right wrongs time and again. Always he proclaimed that the good old days are in the present, not the past.
My grandfather died back in the nineteen eighties at the age of one hundred eight. He was a joyful man who was sentimental about his love for my grandmother, but little else. He felt that what is best about life is a willingness to keep moving forward, keep improving on the past. He never was stuck in some personal vision of an idyllic past. Instead he was realist who understood that times have always been changing and always will. He embraced the future.
The acceleration of knowledge and understanding of the world is incredible. We have boundless information available to us at our fingertips. Our laptops and tablets are provide us with instant gratification of our curiosity. We have the ability to research virtually any topic, but all too often we rely on opinions rather than facts. We don’t take the time to really learn about issues on which our futures hinge.
My grandfather studied the world. He searched for truth. In that regard he learned to become flexible and open and willing to change his ways of thinking and doing things. He was the polar opposite of someone stuck in the past. If he were still here I am certain he would be quite excited about alternative energy, electric cars, the Internet, smart phones, and all of the innovations that have happened since his death. He would urge us all to keep our minds open and to take advantage of the remarkable progress that we have made since he was a boy.
I suspect that my grandfather would have been vaccinated against COVID-19. He would have been confused by those who turn their backs on such a miraculous way of managing a deadly virus. He would be cheering the times and be astounded at how well we have managed in spite of a worldwide pandemic. He would find the sacrifices we are making to be ridiculously easy compared to what he saw in the almost eleven decades of his life. He would smile. Tell us to celebrate our good fortune and to embrace those attempting to plan for an even better future. Grandpa Little was never ever stuck in the past. We should all follow his lead.