The Good Old Days Weren’t All that Good

It’s 2013, and to the surprise of many, we’re still here. We don’t know what the future will bring. With that in mind, many people are nostalgic for the past. Not so fast.

The writer of the biblical book Ecclesiastes puts the past in perspective when he writes: “Do not say, ‘Why is it that former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this” (7:10).

Matthew Henry’s (1622–1714) comments on this passage are helpful: “The supposition is a foolish reflection upon the providence of God in this world. . . . One is so much a stranger to the times past, and such an incompetent judge even of the present times, that he cannot expect a satisfactory answer to the inquiry and therefore he ‘does not inquire wisely.’”

Our memory of the past is selective. We tend to block out the bad and remember only the good.

I was born in 1950. Everything I know about history prior to 1950 has come by way of reading, discussions with people who were there, and modern media presentations of events captured on film. I’ve read how bad things were when hordes of soldiers raped and pillaged, when tyrants ruled by whim, when cheers went up from the crowds when another head dropped in the basket after Madame Guillotine did her work, when mass starvation was the consequence of utopian revolutions that went inevitably bad, when people died of simple infections because antibiotics had not been discovered, when polio struck the healthy until Jonas Salk developed his vaccine, when the Black Death killed tens of millions of people. I could go on, but you get the picture.

I can remember the mechanical washer and wringer or “mangle” that my grandmother used to wash clothes and squeeze out the water. She hung the wet clothes outside on a line to get them dry. Yes, those were the good old days of drudgery, sun up to sun down chores that never went away.

The first manned flight did not occur until 1903. There are a few people alive today who were alive when Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the air at Kill Devil Hill on the coast of North Carolina.

We landed a man on the moon in 1969. Today, a person can fly across the country in less than 4 hours and across the ocean in less than half a day. Christopher Columbus set sail from Southern Spain on August 3, 1492, and arrived in the Bahamas on October 12th — more than a two-month voyage.

There’s the telephone, first invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Now we have smart phones that are more powerful than the computer that was used to send men to the Moon. Who in the nineteenth century thought such things were possible? Not even Jules Verne envisioned them.

Humorist P. J. O’Rourke wrote, “When you think of the good old days, think ‘dentistry.’” “The greatest invention of the modern world is anesthetics,” Dr. Gary North writes, “Prior to 1844, in preparation for an operation, you drank booze until you passed out — hopefully. Then the physician — ‘sawbones,’ he was called — got started hacking away.” You can have the “good old days” of just a hundred years ago:

  • The average life expectancy in America was 47. “The U.S. Census Bureau projects that 114,000 Americans will be centenarians in 2010, a number expected to swell to 241,000 by 2020.”
  • Only 14% of the homes in the U.S. had a bathtub.
  • Only 8% of the homes had a telephone.
  • A three-minute call from Denver to New York City cost $11, if you could get through.
  • There were only 8,000 cars in the U.S. and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • The average wage in the U.S. was $0.22/hour.
  • The average American worker made between $200–$400/year.

The four leading causes of death a hundred years ago in the US were: (1) pneumonia, (2) influenza, (3) tuberculosis, and (4) diarrhea. What’s America’s most pressing publicized health risk today? Obesity! Diet programs are a multi-billion-dollar industry because we have too much food. What a great problem to have.

The flu epidemic of 1918–1919 killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people worldwide. We have ways of combating it today.

What was life like before the polluting automobile? Do you have any idea what city life was like when hundreds of horses defecated in the streets? During hot days, the manure would dry and the air would be filled with bacteria-laden dust that people would breathe. When it rained, pedestrians would have to traverse through manure sludge.

A new year brings a lot hand wringing about the condition of our world. Too often we dwell on the bad and the ugly and dismiss the good as inconsequential.

Let’s not lose heart as we plan to take back our nation in 2013 and beyond.