Why Do We Romanticize The Past?

If you’re an NBA fan, stop me if you’ve heard this before:

“Minutes restrictions and load management are screwing up the game!”

“Players today are too worried about their brands!”

“These guys are all buddies, and they are just too damn soft!”

Well, what if I told you ( 30 for 30 voice) that load management and buddy culture was actually prevalent back in the day, too?

My biggest takeaway of the much-anticipated MJ documentary this past weekend : People don’t really change, circumstances around them do.

The New Orleans Pelicans were subject to major criticism for sitting Zion Williamson for close to half a season. Yet back in the mid 80s, Jerry Krauss essentially threatened the head coach’s job should he play Jordan one second past a 7-minute half restriction- even with 23 seconds left in a tight game! Granted, the Bulls were chasing a lowly 8th seed in the upcoming playoffs; but the business calculus remains the same as it was then: What amount of risk are you willing to take with your franchise player if a championship is not on the line?

The decision was a no-brainer for the owner, and it isn’t difficult to understand why. If your business had an irreplaceable asset which had the potential to easily double your company’s value in less than 4 years, would you put the asset line if you didn’t have to? Fan pressure be damned.

Business is still done the same way, and social dynamics, too, remain glaringly constant. We give Melo flack for the banana boat, but we don’t stop to consider that MJ payed golf with Danny Ainge _in the MIDDLE OF A PLAYOFF SERIES! People, like water, rise to their own level. NBA guys hang out with NBA guys for the same reason comics hang out with comics and construction workers don’t belong to country clubs. That is how the cookie crumbles. The idea that players shouldn’t be friends because they compete 8 months a year is not only ludicrous, it is unfounded.

So, why do we routinely hate on the present without any consideration for the past? Why do we essentially assume things were different in the past? Are we simply hard-wired for nostalgia?

I think the most obvious culprit is recency bias. We’re simply caught up in the moment, and we’re too lazy to do the work of uncovering the parallels in the past. I suppose it’s makes all the sense in the world from an evolutionary standpoint as well: the predator you escaped on Thursday feels a lot more consequential than the one last year.

Perhaps, however, our very perception of the past is opaque because we are prone to romanticize it. I believe we do for many reasons.

Firstly, we romanticize the past because we enjoy dreaming. The past is more malleable than the present, while the future requires more imagination. When was the last time you attempted to write down your goals for the next three to six months? How about your five and ten year goals? It’s more comfortable to settle into the story you have crafted about the past. Once constructed, fantasy land is open for business, and you’re always a daydream away from comfort.

In the past, you can replay your favorite moments again and again in vivid detail, you can paint over the parts you don’t like, and you can be safe.

Personally, I get nostalgic because I feel my past is sealed in its own parcel of time, as if it remains in a glistening stone. I can pick it up and give it a value relevant to my current place in time.

Lastly, maybe we laud the past because it is perfect- our perfect. It’s finished, unchanging, and untouchable. Static. The future is an impossible spiderweb of branching paths that we can only try to glimpse pieces of; the past is a single finite path, point A to point B, with all of the details already filled in — no more uncertainty. In the present, you have to move through every moment, every decision, with only a vague idea of what comes next.

How much value lies in nostalgia, anyway? Like you, perhaps, I came into writing this piece with a pretty high opinion of it. Now, I’m not so sure.

Ultimately, nostalgia is a terrifying thing. It’s a daydream with enough bits of truth that could preclude you from discerning the illusion. History is a hell of a place to get lost in.

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