“Don’t let your past dictate who you are but let it be part of who you will become.” – Nick Portokalos
Time-travel has always been at the top of my wish list for super-powers. The closest things that come to the experience of being jetted back into the past are my frequent visits to historical museums and witnessing movies, music, festivals and live performances that are inspired by past epochs.
I cherish the memories of my visits to famous landmarks such as the Louvre in Paris and The British Museum in London, which both house thousands of ancient treasures that can captivate the explorer within us all. I attempt to soak in all the beauty and magnificence of each piece by imagining the dedication, effort and devotion that went into making a certain painting, sculpture, pottery, utensil, etc.
Whether it is the mysterious gaze of the Mona Lisa portrait or a piece of an archway from a majestic Greek temple or an incredibly well-preserved Egyptian mummy, each one tells a story of the people that made it. It gives us a strong sense of the values, hopes and fears that defined the artist’s belief system. The same is true for more recent historical times that took place over the past 100-400 years.
Read a novel by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë and you can’t help but get enchanted by the quaintness of the Victorian mannerisms. Watch a classical movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age and you get captivated by the effortless poise, mellowness and chic demeanor displayed by the actors on the screen. You’ll notice an unmistakable touch of class, grace and sophistication in their tastes and conduct.
Often times, when I get lost in a reverie, thinking about what it would’ve been like to live during those bygone eras, I wonder how different our society would be if we retained some of the predominant values and ways of being from the past. Would we live better and feel happier? Would we demonstrate more sincerity and authenticity in our behavior? I believe that the answer to these questions is yes!
I’m certainly not suggesting that we all should go back to the way things were. We’ve worked hard to achieve our progress, as is reflected by our medical and technological advancements and stable social conditions defined by equality, justice and racial integration. We now live in an individualistic age where most of us have the resources and the freedom to become whoever we want to be and live out our dreams.
We are a forward-looking and future-centric society, focused on growth and moving on to the next best thing. However, on that road towards progress, there are some invaluable things that we have forgotten along the way. While we should preserve our progressive approach towards life, I feel that it would really serve us if we could pick up the trail of jewels that we inadvertently left behind in our past.
You can be rest assured that this isn’t a desperate plea originating from unresolved nostalgic urges, but a suggestion to review some of the traditions, morals, ethics and perspectives of those gone before us to see if we can incorporate any of it into our framework. Think of this process as sorting through old memorabilia in your attic and pulling out only those objects that could be useful to you in the present.
Based on a combination of my studies on various culturally significant periods in history and my personal viewpoint, here are the 6 most valuable things that I believe we can learn from the historical past:
- Staying connected to nature: Back in the day, there weren’t any iPads, TVs or smartphones available as a source of entertainment for people. They had to find more basic ways of gaining pleasure, mostly in the outdoors, which gave them the opportunity to forge a strong connection with the living world. Natives living in rural and tribal sects led their lives based on the seasons and held a deep regard for the forces of nature and all the creatures that inhabited the planet. There was a sense of harmony when it came to how the natives related to their immediate surroundings. We could emulate this in our own ways and establish a stronger bond with Mother Nature by taking a walk in the park or on the beach, picking up hobbies such as gardening, hiking, camping, or anything else that gives us access to the great outdoors.
- Being curious and staying open to creative exploration: Because of the absence of technology and modern conveniences, which tend to over-stimulate the senses, people used to have a lot more time and mind space to engage in deep thought and focus on subjects that they were curious about. Think about Newton, Galileo, Shakespeare and Da Vinci – luminaries of this kind found it relatively easier to prioritize and carve out the time and space to live in a state of inquiry and delve into the deep questions that aroused their curiosity. Just imagine how many discoveries and breakthroughs we can collectively make if each one of us made time in our schedules for creative exploration and deep thought?
- Cultivating simplicity in our tastes: One of the side effects of living as a consumer in a capitalistic society is that it has made us more materialistic and driven to accumulating more stuff. Just visit any major city in the world and you will witness the majority of the population struggling to be seen for their external adornments of success. Before urbanization took place, people had simpler tastes. Because there were sizable class divisions and more pronounced hierarchies, the lower and middle class usually found happiness in the simple things and this helped them realize that the best things in life were free.
- Staying humble: We are living in the age of “selfies” and recurrent status updates that infiltrate our newsfeed. The new generations of young’uns clamor for validation by attempting to dominate the world of social media. While I agree that self-promotion is a necessity for marketing and branding oneself, there is a chance that some of us may misuse these tools we’ve been given to feed our ego. Our ancestors were very conscious about projecting modesty, no matter how talented, rich or good-looking they were. They allowed their success and personal assets to speak for themselves. They did not have a sense of entitlement like many kids have these days, and remained humble in all their interactions.
- Slowing down: The typical lifestyle in the industrialized world can make us feel like hamsters inside a running wheel. A modern-day work schedule can cause us to live in a state of frenzy, struggling to juggle our daily tasks. Compared to many years ago, the pace of life has dramatically escalated and we have to now consciously take the time out and hit the pause button to relax and unwind. We need to give ourselves some TLC by making time for play, rest and relaxation. We need to slow down so that we can savor all those special moments in life and soak in the bounty of our existence, just as our predecessors did.
- Maintaining our dignity: Call me old-fashioned but there was something particularly regal and classy about the way people communicated, groomed and dressed themselves up back in the early to mid-1900s. Whether it was the way Audrey Hepburn articulated her words or Cary Grant’s suave, manly demeanor – they all had an incredible charm that was laced with hints of natural sophistication. Nowadays, we often witness shallowness, vulgarity and crass ways of self-expression (think Miley Cyrus twerking!), which has somehow become acceptable to mainstream entertainment. I believe that if we restore a small measure of modesty and dignity, we can bring back more depth and meaning into our society. By cleaning up our act, we will be able to return to the times when women were ladies and men were gentlemen.
I strongly encourage you to give history a bigger role in your life by either flipping through old novels with historical narratives or watching a period movie, or anything else that will steep you into the antiquated ways of a primeval world. Doing this will enable you to get a better sense of the larger context of life and you‘ll be able to step into that elusive realm of eternity.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What do you believe are some of the most valuable things we can learn from the historical past? Which ones would you most like to incorporate into your life?
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