A song I hear occasionally on the radio has stuck in my head the past couple days: The Summer of '69 by Bryan Adams. In the song Adams recalls several events from his past with warm nostalgia, capturing his feelings with the repeated refrain:
Those were the best days of my life.
That phrase has prompted me to reflect on my own perspective on life. Now that forty is in my rearview mirror, I like Adams am inclined at times to think of times in my past as the best days of my life. Our cultural mythology promotes this by refering to the time after forty as being “over the hill,” clearly implying that the best years of life come before that. Certainly I have some great memories of my earlier years, of high school and university days and I don't think there's anything wrong with remembering them with warm nostalgia. (One wonders how accurately we remember them, although perhaps its just as well if we allow some details to slip from our memories.) But I do myself wrong by choosing to live in the past. I rob myself of life when I choose to think that my best days are already behind me. I cannot recapture the past. I can celebrate it – maybe even grieve it as appropriate – but I cannot relive it, no matter how hard I try.
The truth is, those don't have to be the best days of my life. The best days can still lie ahead. Life is not at an end, whether one is thirty, forty, fifty or beyond. Yes, the seasons of life change and the way in which we can enjoy them changes as well, but I don't want to live my life looking backward with regret, feeling that the prime of life is receding ever farther from my present. I want to embrace the present and look to the future with hopeful optimism. Life isn't over. The end has not yet come. I have a friend who is living his life as fully in his seventies as he has done in all the years before. He might even say he's enjoying himself more than ever. That's a model for me.
I would say the same to those who seem to hold to this idea on a national level. Some by their words and actions seem to believe that the best days of our country lie behind us. They would tell us that America has fallen from its greatness and that to recapture that we must return to what we once were. While there may be some aspects of truth in that, to me it is a hollow philosophy. It sees the past through rose-colored lenses and fails to recognize the significant shortcomings and failures of our society throughout its history. It's like a forty year old thinking that high school or university was the pinnacle of life and if he or she could just get back to that, everything would be great. But we're not the same nation we were in the past and we cannot go back to that point in time. Nor should we want to. Our best years do not have to lie behind us. They can still lie ahead of us.
When I say that I do not think primarily of restoring America to a position of proud arrogance in which it can impose its will on others around the world without restraint – particularly through military but also through economic influence. I certainly don't think of restoring an America in which a single group holds the majority of economic and political power. Rather I think of a nation that has learned humility – a nation that strives to uphold the equality of all of its people and to include them in the political and economic life of the nation. I think of a nation where power is used for the benefit of all but especially of those most in need, of those marginalized and crushed by systems and people that have wielded power unjustly. I think of a nation that contributes to global development not by force of arms or manipulative control but by coming alongside others to work for the common good. I think of a nation that lives for the future by taking care of its environment now. I think of a nation that lives not to consume more and more, making sure we “get our fair share” (although in fact we already have consumed more than our fair share), but which seeks to live moderately and modestly, promoting healthy, sustainable lifestyles so that others on this shared planet can also live.
No, we have not already seen the best days of our lives or of our nation. The best can still lie ahead of us. But it takes a willingness to break with outdated or false systems of thinking and behaving. It requires us to recognize and admit our weaknesses and failures. We won't progress by trying to go back to what was. We will progress as we seek to live out of an ethic of humble servanthood. We can be something of a “city on a hill,” but not by proclaiming our own self-righteousness and superiority. No, our best days are not behind us, unless we choose to try to live in the past. I don't want to live there though. I want to move forward and strive for what can yet come.
I'm probably just a hopeless dreamer, but that's a dream that motivates me far more than any call to reclaim our nation's past greatness.