Posted by: ritagone | May 29, 2013

The Good Old Days

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Reading a short article the other day about China, I was struck by how often we humans yearn for what seems like “the good old days” in our past – even when the good old days were horrible.  The article stated:  “Many Chinese have begun to pine for the era of Mao Zedong, but I think the majority of them don’t really want to go back in time and probably just feel nostalgic.  Although life in the Mao era was impoverished and restrictive, there was no widespread, cruel competition to survive, just empty class struggle, for actually there were no classes to speak of in those days and so struggle mostly took the form of sloganeering and not much else.  People then were on an equal level, all alike in their frugal lifestyles; as long as you didn’t stick your neck out, you could get through life quite uneventfully.

China today is a completely different story.  So intense is the competition and so unbearable the pressure that, for many Chinese, survival is like war itself.  In this social environment the strong prey on the weak, people enrich themselves through brute force and deception, and the meek and humble suffer while the bold and unscrupulous flourish.  Changes in moral outlook and the reallocation of wealth have created a two-tiered society, and this in turn generates social tensions.  So in China today there have emerged real classes and real conflict.

After Mao, Deng Xiaoping drew on his own personal prestige to implement reforms and pursue an open-door policy, but in his final years he came to reflect on the paradox that even more problems had emerged after development than existed before it.  Perhaps this is precisely why Mao keeps being brought back to life.  Not long ago a public opinion poll asked people to anticipate their reaction if Mao were to wake up today.  Ten percent thought it would be a bad thing, 5 percent thought it would have no impact on China or the world, and 85 percent thought it would be a good thing.  I am unclear about the sample’s demographics, but since the respondents were all Internet users, I suspect they were mostly young people.  Chinese youth today know very little about Mao Zedong, so their embracing the idea of Mao’s resurrection tells us something about the mood of the age.  Gripped by the zeitgeist, people of diverse backgrounds and disparate opinions find a common channel for their discontent and – half in earnest, half in jest – act out a ritual of restoring the dead to life.”

If you’re confused about the rather lengthy but informative quote in this article, realize this: it’s tantamount to saying that you wish – if you were German or Russian – that you could go back to the time when Hitler or Stalin ruled the country, that those were the “good old days” before things fell apart and went awry.  How bad do things have to be currently in a culture before its citizens start to wish that the worst kind of dictator were back in power?

Or perhaps, as I said earlier, the fault lies in our strange but human ability to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that things really were better “back then.”  It’s the “grass is greener” phenomenon, the belief that whatever you don’t have is better than what you do have.  We all participate in it to some extent.  When societies play the game as a whole, it’s devastating and dangerous.  It’s bad enough to do as individuals, because it deprives you of current happiness or contentment, but when entire cultures persist in living and believing this way, anything can happen, and it’s usually not good.

The cure?  Being realistic about where we are, who we are, and where we’re going.  The ability to look in the mirror and describe and define ourselves accurately, warts and all.  Only then will we be able to change and grow.

The “good old days” were good in some ways, not so good in others.  That’s the nature of life.   I’d love the simplicity of life back in the 1950’s, for example.  But I sure wouldn’t want to be without my iPhone or the Internet now that I know today what benefits I derive from them.  See what I mean?

 

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Responses

  1. Thank you Rita! Always love your perspective and advice.
    Gail


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