How long ago does something need to have happened before you can accurately examine it?
If someone asked you to picture “the 70’s,” then lots of images might come to mind. Fashion choices, musical influences, political events, and so on. Things we recognize as having a uniquely “70’s” vibe. Would those things have been recognized as such at the time?
We tend to think of our own culture in terms of “default.” No one thinks they have an accent, for instance, but everyone does – to someone else. We think of things happening right now not as uniquely “20’s,” but as just “normal.” We don’t think of our food as “regional;” it’s just normal food, and everything else is measured against that.
Even science fiction tends to reinforce this kind of view. One thing I’ve always noticed in things like Star Trek or Star Wars or whatever is that there might be tons of different sentient species out in the fictional universe of that particular franchise, but they’re always deviations from an average represented by humans. For every species that’s bigger than humans, there’s one that’s smaller. For each species more peaceful, there’s one more warlike. One more advanced, one more primitive. There’s rarely if ever a space opera where say 95% of other sentient species are larger than humans. Because we always think of our own microcosm as the default from which all other things deviate.
So when you look back at an event or time period, that’s a lot like looking at a foreign culture or alien society. It might have unique characteristics, but you’re framing them in your mind in terms of how far they deviate from your own experiences in the present. That can make it hard to get a realistic view of the significance of those events.
Keep that in mind even when looking at your own personal history. You can look at your own life 20 years ago and think “I was so much more foolish then, so much more reckless,” but that’s because you’re framing it against your current life. You certainly don’t feel foolish or reckless now, but by this method in 20 years when you look back on your current life you’ll judge yourself accordingly.
Don’t undervalue the experiences and choices you made in the past. Understand them, reflect on why you made them, and if you wouldn’t make the same choices today – don’t just chalk it up to capricious youth. Build on that, combine your forces with that younger you, and don’t just let your present be a default to be deviated from. Build a future exactly how you want it.