I don’t know about you, but I seem to have an innate ability to remember how good things used to be. My golf game was incredible in 1999, and so was my hair. While I am continuing to work hard on the former, I got rid of the latter before Bill Clinton left office! But this thinking isn’t restricted to our personal memories. In fact, I see this happening a lot in business, where many leaders reminisce about the “good old days,” while grumbling about current problems.
The book of Exodus tells the narrative of how the Israelites left Egypt, where they were enslaved, and how they spent 40 years in the wilderness waiting to enter the Promised Land. As the narrative progresses, and God exacts his mighty power through Moses, Pharaoh eventually is convinced to “let [His] people go.”One would expect jubilation from the Israelites. If there was any, it didn’t last long. By Exodus 16 we read these words: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16:3).
The Israelites were basically desiring to go back to the “good old days.” You know, where they (supposedly) had pots of food, but were also enslaved and had no rights whatsoever. A little ironic they left the whole being enslaved part out of their rant, isn’t it?
Misremembering reality is one problem with looking back. Another can be summed up by this quote from Chuck Swindoll: “We look back nostalgically on what once was a pleasant situation, at which time (even then!) we were looking back longingly on a more pleasant earlier time.” In other words, 2039 Alex will–hopefully–someday look back to 2019 and long for all the fun (it is fun?) that I am experiencing right now.
It turns out we all have a little longing for “Egypt” in us, don’t we?
Please note two disclaimers here: First, problems are problems. They need to be discussed. However, in the heat of the moment, fixating on them, grumbling about them, can tempt us to misremember some other time as being better than it was. This is human, and yet, unproductive at best, and harmful at worst. Yesterday is not coming back, so let’s focus on dealing with current circumstances rather than longing for a fictitious version of the past.
Disclaimer number two is that certain things about the past were legitimately “better.” A buddy of mine no longer has his father around. Thus, any emotions he has towards his father, and the longing to be reunited, are obviously legitimate. And remembering happy days from the past with his dad is a wonderful thing. My friend is able to embrace those feelings and memories, while still pressing on with hope, and truly enjoying his present circumstances and other family members. He is choosing not to grumble about the sadness he has experienced—that type of bitter “reminiscing” is not very productive or helpful.
As leaders, we will certainly face followers who are tempted to grumble. Our challenge is to set the tone by not being one of them. We can always honor, and even celebrate, the past. But, let’s not fixate on it. As Pastor Shodankeh Johnson says, “The good old days are often a combination of a bad memory and good imagination!”