Saturday, March 23, 2013

Oh, the Good Old Days...

The other day, I heard someone say how life was so much better when they were young.
Really? Is that true?
 Most of us have heard the usual glories about the good old days, how kids played out every evening (no TV, computers and Smart Phones), drank water from the stream, were cuffed for answering back by their parents, etc. This was the time when a cut on the shin of boys was a decorative piece to be worn with pride. (Nowadays, a visit to the doctor or a trip to Child Welfare may be the first act to follow).
But lamenting about our present does not tell the whole story. As a psychometrician, for whom generalization of data plays an important part, let’s not forget that the life-expectancy rate has gone up substantially over the years, our knowledge base has expanded to astronomical levels, availability of information to fuel our knowledge is only a computer-click away, and there is a slow but sure provision of basic necessities for most if not all of our citizens. Today’s average man/woman would most likely be better off than the Royalty of the past (in terms of physical comforts, of course).
I believe when people talk of the glory years of the past, they do not refer to it so much with respect to their physical and financial well-being, but on the basis of how simple life was and the emotional satisfaction it provided. A big pull towards this type of thinking is the acceptance of the fact that ignorance is bliss. In other words, we did not know how much better we could be (financially and physically). We were not such a “spread-about” society (more so now with the internet) than we were then. We lived in our cocoons and it provided the nourishment and emotional requirements we needed.  Of course, the desire for more was always curtailed by the fact that there was no “more” available. Those who prospered and were more than satiated with the status quo satisfied their conscious with a percentage of their discretionary incomes to charity; a discretionary income that was not that high in today’s terms but it was higher (and still is) than most others in the world.  
Yes, I can see the lure for any child toward the idea of belonging to a family, being taken care of by “stay-home” moms and “bring-the-bacon (if available)-home” dads, who seldom, if ever, ventured out to achieve their own personal desires and aspirations. But the child soon became an adult, fueled by a conditional mechanism (based on a different society than that in which her/his parents lived) that desired the accomplishment of his/her own expectations. These aspirations were the same held by the child’s parents in the past, but still quite different in a changing society.
The new society is indeed different. The children of today, for example, cannot hide behind the facade of “I can’t do that because of my gender”. The “new” adults function in a much different environment than what their parents did, and are no longer in “servitude” to their children (i.e., parents living for their children).  That does not mean the children are loved less, but in today’s world love is transferable to those who are professionals in taking care of such a need, i.e., the various day-cares and pre-schools that dot our environment. Love is transferable in other ways, too. No longer does the axiom of marriages being made in heaven apply“If I don’t get what I want from you, I’ll transfer my love to someone else”, is the credence by which we live.
 Where does one draw the line? 
The sacrifice for the simple joys in life had to happen.  Not only are our present-day joys very different from what our parents knew them to be, but such aspirations are now easily attainable, albeit with some effort. What was, once upon a time, an aspect that was outside our reach is now not too far in the distance. But there is a requirement for achieving that which we desire. We have structured our lifestyle differently, the result of which is the demise of the simplistic life that we once cherished.  Because of the sacrifice for the simple things in life (which we treasured) we have now transferred ourselves from a society based on survival to that which flourishes (again, in the physical and financial sense, only).
Yes, the price of progress has come at an expense. It has changed us. We have reached the moon because the moon is a concrete place (not made of cheese). It is a far-away place but distances in today’s world are much shorter than those in Jules Verne’s, “Around the World in 80 Days.” Through our vast internet services, we rub shoulders with others who incite new needs within us. Competitiveness becomes the new ball game in the rush to achieve. Our packaging has to be better even if the content of the package are the same. We, in fact, create artificially high standards of living. An itch on the back which was, at one time, erased by a long stick can now only be scratched by a rose-wood rod with a carved “hand” at one end.
But not all “needs” are artificial. Our lives have become better in a physical sense which to a great degree has pacified our mental state as well. We have hot and cold water. We have a wide selection of food to choose from and we try to educate all our kids (however differently education is defined).
Well, what do we know? Common folk not only have their needs taken care of but they become a major source of income generating source.  The not-so-rich and the rich are dependent on each other. They interplay to create their own little piece of heaven on earth (albeit the heavens of the rich and the not-so-rich are world apart). There is a progressive urge to pump money into the economy which is seen as circular instead of a one-sided help from the rich. The poor now have rights and can demand a slice of the pie. It’s not left to the whim and fancy of the fortunate few. Nowadays, the demands of the market are expected to dictate what the true worth of the output is so that a specialist-worker may make more money than the manager. But our needs for physical well-being are limited. They are based on the laws of diminishing returns—one can only eat so much or one can only have so many yachts and homes to live in before their accumulation lose meaning to us.
Enter the age of knowledge and information.
The world is indeed getting smaller. We now know how someone across the world spent their New Year’s Eve without us having started our own celebrations. The obstacles for the common man to reach the top have been cast aside. No longer do you need an acceptance through an audition. You have the U-tube to do that. It’s still not perfected, but toying with grand ideas such as self-esteem and self-actualization are possible. However, although we have it in our power to compete for things that were once unattainable, the competition has also increased through world-wide channels.
But such advances have had a reality check with some other aspects of our lives.  One major outcome of the new revolution is the closing of the gap between the adult and the child in terms of their requirements. As society has transgressed from a need for spirituality to a desire to accumulate, adults in our society have started questioning their responsibilities. The sparkling-eyed joy and love for the matriarchic figure (in particular the mothers) is now found in the hands of teachers at schools. Parents, with their own aspirations, have little time for their children. They, who were to be obeyed at any cost, now find their children’s alliances in the arms of others in their own communities or across the internet.
Everything is available but everything has a price, including one’s emotions.
The net result of so much information provides one interesting fact. There is no real difference between that what is desired by the young (of course, we are not talking about babies, here) and that which has been the privilege only of the adults. Everyone, young and old, desire food, shelter, privacy, sex, etc. Children go to school where they are told what to do while adults go to work where they are told what to do. Adults have a craving for the opposite sex as much as children do (unless, of course, one is too young or too old). This is further compounded when adults, like their children, function not in the role of adults but as competitors for the common needs, which many a times are in direct competition with those of the children. This is especially true in some parts of the Western world where love and affection are desired by a physically over-reaching society that is emotionally deprived.
The only real difference that sets children apart from adults is, of course, the lack of experience. Everything in the Western world is black and white with no shades of grey.  Emotional stability in adults is slowly deteriorating to the point that they are identical between the two groups with one exception:  It’s still raw for the children – still a source for contentment, partly because of society imposed sanctions as to the do’s and don’ts for them to follow. When everything they want is not achievable until they reach full adulthood, they revert back to being children, unlike the hardened adults who exist, so it seems, with serious lack of emotional maturity.  
Before someone pounces on me for suggesting that a gap between adults and non-adults does exist, let me assure them that the gap certainly exist but it is closing. We do not tell “young adults” to do something; we explain to them why it should be done in the first place as we would do to any adult (which I believe is good). We have family conferences in which young-adults may not have a majority voice but they are heard just the same. Such luxuries were not afforded to the children of the by-gone era.
We treat children like young adults, and in the bargain we expect them to act like one. The onus for closing the gap, therefore, has nothing to do with the desires of the child but it has always rested on the need of the adult. That does not mean the adult is at fault. It simply means that through learned experiences and the scientific data available to adults, young adults are seen as a younger version of adults rather than as children. For example, corporal punishment is not accorded to young adults. It is not something adults, themselves, would like in the first place. That type of punishment is frowned upon even on people whom we consider are our enemies.
Many of the “new” adults have a need to further their own agenda, which in turn may mean that the young-adults at home may have to prepare their own meals or go out and get their own dinner.  The gaps gets closer when both the young-adult and the adult hunt for similar desires or trophies, be it someone to love or the quest in winning fame and fortune. The platform is even, the baseline is the same. In the bargain, many young-adults use parents for food and shelter (sub-consciously, of course) in much the same way they feel they have been used for whatever the parents received from their birth. After all parents had brought them into this world, therefore, food and shelter, and most importantly being left alone, is an entitlement.        
While the desire for the past with its “emotionally advanced” population may be a the requirement of many a person who lives in today’s society, the settling question for the on-going debate lies simply on the basis of whether one would trade off what we have today for what we had then? Of course, it goes without saying that we would trade some parts of our lives for some parts in the past, but if we had only two choices with an either-or- decision to go to the distinct past or stay in the present, what would we do?
While some may talk of the advantages of living in the past from an argumentative point with the safety for never having to do that, I do believe that some people, who have a remembrance of America’s hey-days in the 60s and the 70s, sincerely would opt for the past. Presumably, some of these people would willingly trade-off the material advances of today for the simplicity of life in the years past. I, however, could not have functioned in the society of the past. I would not know what to do if the microwave was not available, and my smart phone did not provide me on the spur of the moment GPS coordinates.  =)
How deprived am I emotionally? In the context of the past, I am deprived, but I am of the opinion that a new definition for emotions needs to be formulated. We are, after all, a society of creators. Perhaps a time has come for new emotions to wash out the old ones.
What say you?


  1. Oh Boy! The narrative on the good old days was exhausting because you were all over the place with this one. You wanted to be so convincing that you did not leave any conceivable situation whereby one would argue that those days were better than now. I am not here to argue either way because usually when a comment like this is made it is more situational than general. There are aspects of these present days that irk some individuals to such an extent that they lament on the days gone by.
    Of course no one will argue that life has in a way become more comfortable with the progress of technology, advancement in medicine and so forth but with such rapid advances in all fields comes a little backlash of super hectic life, stress levels which should not be there if life was so good.
    In the past progress was slow and there was a big gap between what one generation experienced from the next. A decade or two gone by use to feel very far away as things would have become different after a long time. Suddenly when you turn back you see very different days and thus the nostalgia is enhanced. It may be more of a perception than reality. Today everything changes so fast that you do not even realize that they have changed, because it just a minor enhancement and you keep getting used to it. My feeling is that today’s generation when they will grow up may not say the good old days that much as our generation is saying. In fact I think I am saying much less that my mother use to say. Even after we got independence and most of India was happy and rejoicing I remember when growing up she would say how good the days were in the ‘British Raj’. She must be around 40 at that time.
    The events that usually trigger this comment are to do directly with the decay of morality, beak down of institutions like marriage, justifications of bad behavior and not taking responsibility of one’s mistakes and actions. There were some hard core values which have been compromised by some people who think even if they do not contribute to the society it should provide them with basic necessities. I am fine with that but it should hurt your pride somewhere. If it does not then we are heading in the wrong direction even with all the progress.
    It is being sad again and again that the late 50’s and early 60’s was a great time for America. One income was enough to live a good life. I was not here to vouch for it but whatever little I have read it seems about right. Your examples of microwave oven and smart phones are very trivial in larger scheme if things. For some folks even to- day this stuff does not make life very good. They need something different to make their life meaningful and happy. Another comment of yours that caught my attention that for people in the past ‘ignorance was bliss’, this is an ongoing phenomenon. The coming generation will say the same thing about us because surely, we do not know a lot of things they are going to experience. The only difference is like I have said before the change is so fast that the gap of ignorance will be minimal and we will not be around for that long for us to say the good old days.

    1. Hi Tahir,

      First of all, my sincere thanks for your response. As always, it’s much appreciated. I guess "my being all over the place", is precisely why I call these writings, “ramblings” rather than well thought out essays.
      In a sense, all I was trying to say was that the past had its benefits as that which provided us with emotional comforts but lacked in providing us with financial and physical well being. In the bargain, the present may have altered our definition of what emotional well-being means to us. Have we done that?
      Under the condition of "agreeing to disagree", I understand where you’re coming from, but at the same time would like to counter some of your arguments. I, for the most part, do not consider this situational. I think of it as a generalization under the umbrella of equating the past with that which is good emotionally, and the present with that which is good physically (we live longer) and financially (many of us can afford a few items that, at one time, were only reserved for the rich). The projection of my dependency on the microwave was a metaphor for the physical comforts of my life. Of course, there will be some people who do not like cell phones. But I would be willing to bet they are very much in the minority, particularly when you get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. =)
      On the other hand (and here I go, covering my butt from all angles), some people of the past generation (and I say this with tongue-in-cheek) have never lived in the present. These are folks like our parents who at one time, if I remember correctly, found the calculator an untrustworthy nuisance. But for those who live in the present (the operating word being “live”), and have reminisces of the past, the situation needs clarification.

      One thing that really hit home is your assertion that in the future there will be less glamorization of the past. Well put. I agree.

      Thanks again.

      Hope we can have many such "talks" in the future.