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  • Dan Connors

You've Got a Great Past Ahead of You


" It means your future hasn't been written yet.No one's has.Your future is whatever you make it.So make it a good one, both of you. " Doc Brown, Back to the Future 3


For most of us, the future is scary while the past is comforting. The past provides cherry-picked memories of things that seemed better, while the future promises dangers, uncertainty, and eventually death. But focusing too much on the past prevents us from dealing with both the present and the future, especially because most of us are so bad at assessing the past in all of its vast complexity.


Politicians and marketers take advantage of our fondness for a rosy past by exploiting it for their own purposes. Both the Brexit and MAGA movements are appeals to the past when things were less complicated and seemed to make more sense. Speaking as a baby boomer, we find great comfort in watching classic television shows and listening to classic rock bands that were popular when we were young. Youth is a fleeting but memorable time in most lives when our looks were at their peak, our futures were still ahead of us, and our health was taken for granted. The declines of old age are scary as hell, and death looms at the end of it all.


I recently visited Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, and was struck by the slogan at the top of this essay, "You've got a great past ahead of you." What a masterful bit of nonsense. Without a time machine, we can never go back into the past, and we jolt further into the future every day. But Silver Dollar City provides an illusion of a trip back to the 1880's, when America was still young and less complicated. There is no mention there about the Civil War, slavery, Native American genocide, women's limited rights, or the robber barons who dominated the last two centuries of the 19th century. It's a cherry-picked vision of that time period, presented with musical entertainment, roller coasters, and theme park food.


Walt Disney World presents the same kind of idealized past with its Main Street USA at many of its parks, and as long as we don't romanticize these periods too much, it's harmless fun. Personally, I wish the past had been as simple and friendly as many have portrayed it. But the history books tell us much more, and for those who are brave enough to do more digging, some very unpleasant truths lie down there in the dark belly of the world's history. We may not like unpleasant truths, (which is why we ignore them), but by not learning from them we condemn ourselves to repeat our mistakes over and over.


The 21st century is shaping up to be one of the most consequential in history, and that has led to a reactionary craving for the simpler world of the 20th century for those who profited more from the rules back then. There are three huge changes coming this century that scare the ruling baby boomers the most. Computer technology is rapidly changing both the economy and jobs, climate change is looming as both a threat to existence and a mandate to change our lifestyles, and white, Christian males are losing their stranglehold on power as demographic changes and more inclusive attitudes gain favor.


White baby boomers are behind the push to whitewash history today, in part because of this growing anxiety about the future. History books are being re-written to de-emphasize racial and gender issues that are being swept under the rug. They can control how they see the past, but they can't entirely control their own future. But again, denying the past is not a healthy way to get through life- people learn very little that way. Main Street USA with its clean-shaven barbershop quartets and pretty ladies in frilly dresses may be comforting, but it's an illusion.


Being in the present, we are always on the cusp between the past and the future, and we need to balance the two as best we can to maximize and appreciate the short and fleeting lives we are given. Looking back at the past, we need to look at both our victories and our failures, and learn from both. We need to remember our childhood and appreciate our parents for the flawed but hopefully well-meaning people that they were. And we need to see history as a messy march to progress, appreciating the inventors and visionaries who got us to this point.


But in looking to the past, we must always keep the future in mind. We have a duty to plan ahead as best we can to make life better for future generations. And that means not expecting the same things that worked in our flawed past to work the same in the future. Change is inevitable, and somehow, after the last baby boomer kicks the bucket later this century, we need to leave behind a world that dealt with climate change in heroic fashion, incorporated technology while keeping humanity and human dignity paramount, and created a more inclusive world where people of all races and genders felt more like they belonged. There is much to do before then, and dwelling on the past won't necessarily get us there.


As Doc Brown said, the future hasn't been written yet- our future is whatever we make it. And I close with the worlds of an ancient Greek proverb- “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”



FYI- Silver Dollar City is actually a pretty cool theme park and much less expensive than Disney.





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