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The Present Isn’t What It Used to Be

Personal Perspective: We need to live in the here and now.

Key points

  • Nostalgia is a trap that devalues the present.
  • We need to appreciate the here and now, warts and all, and make the best of where we are in the present.
  • Mindfulness can help us be in the present.

Our society doesn't seem to like the present very much, but nostalgia isn't a new thing. Even in classical Greece people grieved for a long-gone “golden era,” while 19th-century writers and artists saw the Middle Ages as the romantic ideal they most wanted to emulate. They missed the past, but not as much as we do. We seem nowadays to be particularly ashamed of our present. Artists a century ago were proud to paint the technological wonders of their time, such as steamships in a busy port, for instance. They considered urban streets, saturated with people and vehicles, to be beautiful subjects for their pictures. In contrast, a present-day artist wouldn’t dream of painting a gridlocked highway, an industrial landscape, or a hectic airport. A steam train charging through the countryside was a beautiful thing to behold, but, for some reason, a Boeing 747 taking off in all its majesty, isn’t.

Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels
Source: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

There seems to be a time gradient in our minds, according to which the past is valuable and worthy of nostalgia, the present is mundane and ugly, and the future dystopic. The past is unthreatening, unless, of course, one is remembering a trauma or a period of sadness, while the present is full of troubles, and the future is packed with dangers. The future has opportunities, too, obviously, but in our collective conscience these are outweighed by a feeling of technological fatalism. In virtually all fictional stories set in the future the human race has either been enslaved or otherwise entirely exterminated. There must be something about the future that makes us nervous.

The ordinariness of everyday present life, with all its unending labors and myriad small problems, detracts from its potential beauty. Because of this, it has been argued that happiness can only be remembered rather than experienced. Happiness, if it exists at all, appears to belong in the past. In fact, I would postulate that happiness, if it exists at all, doesn’t belong in any particular time frame and would be corrupted by the complexities and tensions of a narrative, even if this narrative was set in the past. It would probably be better represented in a still photo than in a film. Happiness is, after all, nothing more than an abstract idea that cannot endure contact with reality. This is why we think we can find it in the past, where gritty annoyances and bothersome fears have conveniently been edited out of our memories.

Nostalgia is a trap that devalues the present. It is impossible to retrieve happiness from the past. It is also important to bear in mind that humans have made very good progress recently in their fights against poverty and disease, so we have, in fact, more reason to be relatively proud of our present and optimistic about the future than did our ancestors. Placing happiness somewhere else in space has a comparable distorting effect. Instead, we need to appreciate the here and now, warts and all, and make the best of where we are in the present. Mindfulness will help us achieve this. If you have been thinking of giving it a go, this would be a good time. There's no time like the present.