“The past is a foreign country,” advised British novelist L.P. Hartley.
And it’s true: Most of us have quite enough trouble keeping up with the present. We’re too busy to think much about the past.
Of course, there are different ways of thinking about the past, some bad and some good.
On the bad side, some people chain themselves to the past. They can’t escape it because they’ve become their own jailers. They might brood about long-ago hurts of which they can’t let go. They might yearn for a utopian society that they imagine once existed. They think so much about the past that they miss the present, which despite all of its flaws, still has plenty to offer. It requires our attention if we’re going to make the most of it.
But on the good side, other people look to the past for insight or inspiration. It can help us meet the challenges of the present.
Personally, I’m fond of old radio shows, mostly from the 1930s and early 1940s. Some are strange, but many offer ideas that are just as relevant now as they were back then.
One such show was “The Lone Ranger,” a moralistic drama wherein a former Texas Ranger battled crime in the 19th-century Western United States. When a criminal gang ambushed a group of six Texas Rangers, he was the only one to survive — becoming “the Lone Ranger.” He was nursed back to health by Tonto, a Comanche warrior who found him after the ambush, and whose life the Ranger had saved many years earlier when they were both boys.
The show’s creators, George W. Trendle and Fran Striker, spelled out the show’s subtext in the Lone Ranger’s creed. We’d use different wording today, but the ideas are timeless:
That to have a friend, a man must be one.
That all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world.
That God put the firewood there but that every man must gather and light it himself.
In being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right.
That a man should make the most of what equipment he has.
That ‘This government, of the people, by the people and for the people’ shall live always.
That men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number.
That sooner or later, somewhere, somehow, we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.
That all things change but truth, and that truth alone, lives on forever.
In my Creator, my country, my fellow man.”
Trendle and Striker had other guidelines as well:
- “At all times, The Lone Ranger uses perfect grammar and precise speech completely devoid of slang and colloquial phrases.
- When he has to use guns, The Lone Ranger never shoots to kill, but rather only to disarm his opponent as painlessly as possible.
- The Lone Ranger does not drink or smoke, and saloon scenes are usually interpreted as cafes with waiters and food instead of bartenders and liquor.”
Even CNN, in 2013, published an article lauding the Lone Ranger.
Yes, the past is a foreign country. But as they used to say (in 1938). “travel is broadening.”
Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. One reader said that “I got a kick out of the chapter on Spinoza.”