The Rise of Realism

Science now sees optimism and pessimism not as good or bad outlooks you're born with but as mind-sets to adopt as situations demand. So let's be realistic, mix of pessimism and optimism will get you far.

Good Old Days Syndrome

Romanticizing the past can make us feel bad about the present.

As many of you know, my life changed dramatically in 2001 when I became chronically ill and eventually had to give up a career that I loved. Although I've adjusted to my new life, I can still find myself romanticizing the past. I call it Good Old Days Syndrome.

When it attacks, I convince myself that before I got sick, my life was perfect: working at the law school was always fulfilling; my family life was everything I could wish for; I was free to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted.

Was all of this true? No! Being a law professor was difficult at times, and although I enjoyed most of my students, occasionally one could be unpleasant. My family life was definitely good, but it could be stressful at times. And do I really believe that I could go anywhere I wanted to go at will?

No, life wasn't perfect before I got sick. It had its share of easy times and tough times, of successes and disappointments. When I find myself putting that "old" life on a pedestal and thinking that it was perfect, I try to remember that this is a romantisized view of the past that serves only to make me feel bad about the present.

We also tend to assume that other eras were the Good Old Days. In his NBC newscast of April 8, 2013, Brian Williams began his report on the death of Annette Funicello by wistfully referring to the 1950s as "a sweeter era, one of genuine innocence." I don’t think so. Not only was that the era of Red baiting, but in those "sweet and innocent" 1950s, in many places in the U.S., it would have been a crime for my two children to marry the people they fell in love with because those two people happen to be of different races than my children.

My Good Old Days era is the 60s: rock and roll, flower power, love love love. But recently, I saw a story on television about Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. How could I have forgotten that police used hoses and police dogs to stop children from peacefully marching to protest segregation? (The children had to march by themselves because their parents had been told they’d lose their jobs if they participated, even during off-work hours.) The footage in the story showed children being knocked to the ground by high-powered hoses and bitten at by police dogs. I won’t be forgetting that day in 1963 again.

And then there were earlier eras when people died of diseases that we’re protected against by popping a pill or getting a vaccination. My mother-in-law had a close friend who grew up in the 1930s. Many years ago, she told me that at the first sign of sniffles in the winter, her parents wouldn’t let her play outside until spring, They didn’t want to take a chance that the sniffles would turn into bronchitis or some other kind of bacterial infection, for which, today, we’d just take an antibiotic.

Here’s an example of when I was recently attacked by Good Old Days Syndrome. A few months ago, my husband was out of town, so I had to go to the pharmacy on my own to refill a prescription. I ran into a friend whom I haven’t seen for about ten years. We embraced and found a place to sit and then chatted for about fifteen minutes, catching up on news about our families and our mutual friends.

When I got home, I was overcome with sadness over this lost friendship. As I do when I recognize that I’m dissatisfied and unhappy, I looked for the source of my misery in some kind of frustrated desire (a technique I call “the tracing exercise” in my book How to Wake Up). I “traced” until I found that place where I wasn’t getting what I wanted. And there it was: I wanted this friendship to be as wonderful as it once had been.

At that point, I realized that this friendship had never been the way I was fantasizing it to have been in the past. She and I mostly saw each other because we had a few friends in common. We were never close. And yet, there I was, mocking up a distorted memory of the Good Old Days—and then feeling miserable about it!

So, it’s good to remember that life is a mixed bag in every era and in every decade, and to not allow Good Old Days Syndrome ruin the life you have now.

© 2013 Toni Bernhard

You might also like "10 Things I Didn't Know Before I Got Sick."

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

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The Rise of Realism