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Useful And Fantastic: Learn From The Past

Val Yule advises us to explore the past and learn the lessons it has to offer.

“You only learn from your own experience” is one of the commonest beliefs. It is sadly true, although often we do not learn even from our own experiences, but keep repeating our mistakes as if they were habits. It is a pity that it is often true. It does not often include learning from your own experience of what others tell you. A great advantage of being human is that we can learn from the past that we have not experienced ourselves, unlike any other creatures that I know of. Naturalists may point to some.

“I stood on the shoulders of giants and so reached further,” was the acknowledgement of Isaac Newton.

We can learn from the past what not to do, and what to do. We can test out the lessons they appear to tell us, because situations change, and the lessons change too.

When you are young, you want to learn from your own experience and older people are old hat. So we get “three generation” learning, when each generation rejects the one before it, and takes up ideas that were current before that. And so we go in cycles. Older people are often wrong. Knowledge advances and the young have the new knowledge. But knowing what the older people think and have experienced is important to assessing and trying out the new.

Antique shops know the cycle. The recent past gets trashed. Further back is treasured. But not so long ago it was the recent past, and the generation before us trashed most of it. So what survives to become our generations antiques is rare. And we are busy trashing. We are the biggest trashers in history. Buildings survived unvandalised for hundreds of years, and then our vandals or our developers trashed them. We have so much; we have to trash to keep our heads above everything.

One of my pleasures is reading old books – old children’s books, science books, history books, old magazines – anything old. So often they give a light on today. So often they are worth reading because we do not have the same things today. So often the type and general condition is easier to read than some books for children and adults today. Surely we should have learned by now what is easiest to read.

I read old professional journals, and here we have the problem that people have to make their name by writing new stuff. So sometimes the old stuff is just forgotten – and sometimes the new authors repeat the older stuff. Fashions, fashions. For the sake of being new, dreadful fashions are resurrected rather than the best of the old. People wear spike heels. Again.

All sorts of things get modern designs which are not useful, all because it has to look new – taps, jugs, chairs, you name them. They look new – but the old was useful. Some new designs are good – but the bad need not reach production.

Old houses – not needing air conditioning or central heating – We can keep them, and learn from them. Old equipment – use them for your minimum needs, instead of the big new appliances that are so good for the maximum needs. Have an old house so you can have both the big new appliance and the old, which won’t break down so often, and calls for a bit more physical exercise. Your home gym consists of your good manual mower (there are poor ones about), a good twin-tub, a carpet sweeper, a broom, and an egg whisk.

New experiences – they are taken up often because we haven’t learnt from the past, that some mistakes are not remediable. Into the world of different sensory and brain experiences with drugs and noise – whereas in the past you can find experiences which do not have to come with warning labels attached. Try spiritual experiences which are like drugs without the problems. Try imagination which is often better than trying some new things in reality. Try books and the Internet, which can tell you about the world that exists for you to try, without risks to your body, mind or spirit.

All this has been said before – and forgotten, because it was in the past.

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