The Good Old Days
Were they really as good as we think?
On a visit to the St. Louis Gateway Arch this summer, I bought a copy of a book I couldn’t help noticing in the gift shop: The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! This book, written by Otto L. Bettmann and published in 1974, contains photographs and written descriptions of life in the “Gilded Age” in the United States, during the years 1870–1889. This was a post-Civil War period of rapid change, growth, and increasing wealth in this country, and an age for which we sometimes have a collective and nonsensical yearning.
The nonsense of this yearning is the main point of this book. As the author says in his introduction, “I have always felt that our times have overrated and unduly overplayed the fun aspects of the past. What we have forgotten are the hunger of the unemployed, crime, corruption, the despair of the aged, the insane, and the crippled. The world now gone was in no way spared the problems we consider horrendously our own, such as pollution, addition, urban plight or education turmoil.” The author goes on to encourage us toward greater optimism about our own age and about our future, knowing we have made real advances and will continue to move forward.
He then illustrates his point with 200 pages of images and descriptions of nuisances we no longer face—pigs roaming city streets, sidewalks filled with trash, and manure-laced traffic jams born of complete and unmitigated chaos. He shows the horrors of life for the mentally ill, addicted, poor, and naïve. And he uncovers the spreading roots in this period of some of our modern social problems, from alcoholism and drug addiction to street gangs and corruption.
So along with gratitude for indoor plumbing and the Food and Drug Administration, I felt a little disenchantment as I read this book. It’s funny, because I already knew most of the broad facts. I knew about child labor, poor hygiene, Yellow Fever, mortality rates, corrupt public officials, unfair employment practices, and pronounced and visible class distinctions. But learning some of the details—and especially seeing pictures—made it all more real. And apparently this reality crushed my own unrecognized and irrational ideals about the “good old days.”
So if I knew that life was—in so many ways—rougher back then, why did I still idealize those times without even realizing I was doing so? Why do any of us look back with fondness on times we didn’t see, or worse, with whitewashed views of times we did see? Some of us even long for and idealize the future, beyond our own lifetimes, imagining that so many of our problems will be solved by future generations and ignoring the certainty that our descendents will also discover and invent new problems we can’t foresee.
I think such longing is less about “things” or “days” and more about people. I think we want to believe that people are better than they (we) are, and lacking such evidence in the world around us, we look to the past or the future, where we have the luxury of selective vision. But sadly, people are not and were not better than what we experience every day in ourselves and with others. We’re all fearfully and wonderfully made, and deeply flawed and disfigured by the sin we choose, relish, and treasure.
We work to improve ourselves, our lives, and the lives of those who will come after us, and we succeed. And then we discover that we didn’t quite get it right. We eradicate diseases only to find ourselves fighting new ones—and resistant strains of old ones. We prolong life and then find ourselves fighting over the right to die. We develop the ability to produce enough healthy food for everyone . . . and find we can’t stop eating junk. We fight the war to end all wars and two decades later end a world war with the weapon that threatens to end the world for the next 60 years and beyond. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t eradicate our sin nature and the consequences of our Fall, our desperate clawing after godlikeness, after power and self-rule.
So what’s my point? Simple: We desperately need God, and salvation through Jesus. Every single one of us and all of us together. May we never stop trying to do better with what he’s given us. But may our failures and our “almosts” remind us where hope really lives. Not in our own abilities or the goodness of others, hope always lives in the grace of the God over and above all time, who says, “Listen to me, you who know right from wrong, you who cherish my law in your hearts. Do not be afraid of people’s scorn, nor fear their insults. For the moth will devour them as it devours clothing. The worm will eat at them as it eats wool. But my righteousness will last forever. My salvation will continue from generation to generation” (Isaiah 51:7–8).