Idealizing the Past

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Recently, as I was preparing for a class on the book of Ecclesiastes in my Introduction to the Bible course, I read this verse, which I don’t think has ever really stood out to me. This time, I was struck by it. It addresses something that many, perhaps all people, experience in their lives; they look to the past and they think that the past was somehow better. In some cases, this motivates people to try to change things back to those glory days. The author of Ecclesiastes thinks otherwise. Now I don’t think we are meant to take this as counsel against ever thinking about the past, but—as I see it—it does warn against idealizing the past as better than the present. Why?

Humans love to think about the past, individually and corporately. Sometimes we idealize it and sometimes we demonize it. However we represent it, we are shaping and being shaped by the memories we form and recast. It is common, when people find themselves in a difficult spot, to look back to their childhood, or more remote past, thinking that if they were only in that time, things would be different. On the more radical side of things, those who are afraid of the downfall of white European civilization try to get back to a more “pure” time. In either case, the impulse to idealize the past and try to recreate it is strong in our species, and it is not always a productive impulse. It can lead us down the path to self-deception, dwelling on something that never existed in the way we recreate it in our mind. Here, the author of Ecclesiastes seems to beckon us to enjoy the now, without comparing it to the past.