Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts of Then vs Now

One question I get asked quite frequently is "would you live in the past if you could?"
I consider that a very good question. It's easy to just say, "Oh! Absolutely! I would have loved to live back then!" That's because we can romanticize the past through tales in books or through movies - take the best of the 19th century and tell of that joyous part of life that makes the 19th century look so wonderful. By reading social history books, we can tell how long it took to travel from here to there by horse and carriage, how folks worked together as a family to grow the crops so they had plenty to eat come harvest time, made by hand whatever furniture needed to make life more comfortable, had no worries about paying the electric or cable bill...
We can also hear about the not so good part of Victorian living - sickness, rough daily occupations and working conditions, going to the dentist, infant mortality rates, pollution...
And, when the reenactment, period book, or historical movie is over we can 're-enter' the 21st century: cooling off in an air-conditioned car or house, maybe go for a dip in a pool, drive through a local Burger King, throw on a Beatles cd, and relax.
When one compares the past to the present, my guess would be that the greater majority of common folk would choose the present time in which to live.
I used to feel that way as well - and, I still do to a certain extent. I do enjoy the wonders of the computer, my recorded music, and my movies. But, the more 'time' moves on - and the more society changes in a way I don't agree - the less comfortable I feel living in this day and age, and the greater my wish to be able to travel through time to my favorite era, that, of course, being the mid-19th century, becomes.
Even with all of its roughness, I feel the Victorians had 'cornered the market' on dealing with life. They put their lives on the line daily - they accepted everything that came their way - good and bad - and gave glory to God no matter what.
I'm not always like that. I try to be, but my mindset is of the 21st...well, OK, the 20th century, and we of this era in human history have become the stressful nation - a nation of want and need of material goods, not acceptance for what we already have; a society of Doubting Thomases instead of a nation of faith; a nation of blatant in-your-face screw-you-if-you-don't-like-it attitudes instead of respecting our neighbor and fellow man for a belief in tradition.
This is also the age of entitlement!
In the 19th century - heck, even throughout most of the 20th century - people knew the difference between right and wrong. Today, folks instead will state, "what's wrong for one person might be right for another." They will claim there are no absolutes when it comes to such a "gray" area. That everything is pretty much 'right.'
They will also blame whatever and whoever they can for their own wrong doings.
Disciplining your child for being bad was not considered a crime - yes, it's true, contrary to the revisionist historians (who love to place today's societal ills upon our 19th century counterparts), kids back then were more disciplined and respectful. They knew the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. They knew the importance of having and practicing religious faith in their daily lives; the importance of family; the need for hard work in order to survive. Most did not feel they were entitled to anything, especially the government. They persevered through thick and thin, and most survived.
There is a scene from the movie "Cold Mountain" that really makes me think, on another level, about the differences from our lives today to our ancestor's lives 150 years ago. I've seen the movie probably nearly a dozen times and each showing of this particular part I get the exact same feeling of helplessness. For some odd reason it is my absolute favorite scene from "Cold Mountain" and it is where Ada Monroe is in her house playing the piano while her minister father is out in their yard working on his sermon for the following Sunday. As Ada is playing music she notices that it has begun to rain - hard. She calls for her father to come in but, as she looks to find why he is not answering, she sees that he had slumped over while sitting in his chair, dead. I assume his heart had given out. The rain shower becomes a down pour as Ada runs in a panic to him, calling his name, to no avail.
Why is this dreary scene my favorite? I believe it's because it shows a distinct part of 19th century life that so many of us in the 21st century cannot comprehend: total helplessness. If we see someone who needs immediate attention, we have the ability to whip out our cell phones and call an ambulance or the police and, within a matter of minutes, help has arrived.
Not so during the Civil War era. What could Ada do? No phones or electronic communication of any sort. She couldn't drag her father into the house - I'm sure she wouldn't be strong enough to do that, especially on wet grass. So she had to leave her father - a man she loved and admired dearly - out in the soaking rain. (The movie doesn't show this but I am sure, if something like this had actually happened, it was what she would have had to do).
Can you imagine what went through Ada's mind - that total helpless feeling?
This scene was just so real to me, and it brings the hardships and survival skills of the era to life under no uncertain terms.
Hmmm...I guess my original answer to would I go back if I could go back in time was wrong - I am going to have to say "no, I would not."
Because, being a child of our modern times, I could never measure up to those wonderful survivors of the 19th century.
I couldn't hold a candle to them.
God Bless Them, and God Help Us.


Stephanie Ann said...

I love this post. I absolutely believe that people in modern times are very quick to not be responsible for their actions and judgements. Just think of all of those silly cases where people sue.

We had a case where a pig bit a school student who was taunting the pig with food after the student had already been told not to. It was barely a scratch but the parents saw a way to get some quick money.

I know someone who's brother died in the 1930s because he was hit by a piano that was being raised onto a high floor of a building. Back then, suing for something like that was unheard of and everyone just acknowledged that it was a tragic accident.

Just think of all the ways we try to avoid having to think critically. We have everything approved for use or consumption.

Back then, if meat looked or smelled bad, you didn't buy it or avoided that seller in the future. You had to think critically about everything you used or ate.

I wish we would brink critical thinking back. We go through life oblivious to it. If I touch a thistle, I expect to bleed, not blame the grower for forgetting to cut the thorns off of it.

Historical Ken said...

Thank you Stephanie Ann. What you wrote here is a perfect addition to my post!!

Jimio said...

You did an excellent job describing life back in the mid 1800s. And you did the best I have ever seen telling about a small scene in a movie and tearing it into its motives and meaningful parts. Keep these insightful and thought provoking posts comming.

Historical Ken said...

Thank you Jimio!