JASON M. WESTER: Nostalgia aside, these are the best times ever

By Jason M. Wester

My mother likes to reminisce. She was born in the 1950s and came of age in the 1960s, a time she remembers as a golden age in which children could roam freely about the streets and parents never worried. She’d attend a double feature, replete with popcorn and Coke, for the price of a quarter. Things were just simpler back then. Those were better times, Mom says.
“But what about segregation?” I asked. “Weren’t there riots at Ole Miss when James Meredith enrolled? Weren’t two people killed? Weren’t the 50s and 60s particularly rife with racial strife?”
Apparently, the ‘50s and ‘60s weren’t so golden after all.
To understand why my mother looks back so fondly on a period of time marked by racial inequality, among many other ills, one must understand that humans tend to romanticize their childhoods, to continue to see those times with the same innocent eyes they had when they were children. That tendency is called nostalgia, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.”
One might consider nostalgia to be rather benign, but my argument here is that, for many people, that romanticized vision of the past translates into a skewed vision of the present and future. I see it every day, in the pages of newspapers, in online discussion forums, and just about anywhere I find people talking to each other. Invariably, I run across the idea that our present world is a horrible place, that America is in decline, that our country is slipping and sliding to Hell in a hand basket. Yet, once one removes his or her rose-tinted spectacles, such sentiments are revealed to be what they are: fallacious. Far to the contrary, there has never been a better time to be alive and American.
Consider the following:
• We live in a time of exponential growth and discovery in the sciences, and America still leads the way. Medicine, in particular, has given us the first functional cure for HIV, and that happened at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. In 1950, a cancer diagnosis was all but a death sentence. No so today. Medicine has given people with cancer a fighting chance. Life expectancy continues to rise every year, with no ceiling in site. Advances in medicine give us longer and more productive lives.
• Digital technologies have made it easier for us to create knowledge and to preserve and disseminate that knowledge. Never before in human history has communication been easier. If I need to know, say, the definition of nostalgia, that information is literally at my fingertips. If I want to talk to my good friend in South Korea, reaching her is as simple as turning on my computer.
• This one is my favorite: the science of astronomy is undergoing a breathtaking renaissance. Every day a new planet or two is discovered hovering around a distant star, and astronomers are piecing together a picture of the universe in which almost every star has one or more planets orbiting it. That means that there are more planets out there than there are stars, and that means the likelihood that one of those planets orbiting within the “Goldilocks zone” is a safe bet. If the possibility that we are not alone in the universe doesn’t fire up one’s imagination, I want to check his or her heartbeat.
• In our great United States, freedom is expanding. No longer are black people considered second-class citizens, and pretty soon the societal discrimination against gay people will end. The dominoes have already started to fall. Probably no other social issue divides Americans more than the expansion of gay rights, just as during the struggle for civil rights scores of people found themselves on the wrong side of history and the fear mongering was much as it is today, that the expansion of freedom meant the country was in decline. Yet, if the history of our country is any guide, the expansion of freedom is always a good thing. ur cherished American principles of freedom and equality march forward unabated.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, right here, right now is the best time to be alive. Are there problems? Absolutely. And those problems make it all the more important to have a clear vision about what ails us. Looking back and looking forward, it is imperative that we see the world for what it is. It takes a crystal clear lens to see what ails us and to work to make this world, this country, better.
Those rose-tinted glasses? Toss them into the trash.
JASON M. WESTER is a Tupelo resident who teaches at Northwest Mississippi Community College. Contact him at jason@jasonwester.com.