Exactly 30 years ago on January 31st, 1988, the Washington Redskins defeated the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XXII… but that’s not nearly as significant to me as compared to what happened next.
Immediately after the football game Daniel Stern narrated the pilot episode of an ABC TV show that would become one of my (and many others) all-time favorites, “The Wonder Years.” The show was a coming-of-age drama, loaded with cultural references and adolescent victories and failures. The writers had an amazing ability to tap into the triumphs and struggles of the average American kid and pack as much of them as possible into each 23-minute episode. Despite the ups and downs in the life of young Kevin Arnold, the protagonist, the show nearly always left the audience feeling hopeful about the future. As long as there was a Winnie Cooper worth fighting for, Kevin could endure his grumpy-yet-hard-working father, his bully of an older brother, or any number of school-related disasters.
In the subsequent years, long after the show concluded, I found myself repeatedly drawn to this idea of the so-called “wonder years” and how it may apply to real life. Were these just some exploratory years of life that only exist while we attempt to figure out adulthood? Are they “the good old days” that can only be remembered during bouts of nostalgia as we wallow through the often difficult routines of grown-up life? Will they ever come again? Did they ever really exist at all?
I wanted to share a few casual observations I’ve had about the real-life wonder years.
THEY DIDN’T ACTUALLY EXIST
…at least not in the way we remember them. Humans tend to suppress pain. It is a natural reflex. Physical pain can be reduced or eliminated with medication. Emotional pain can be mitigated by proper counseling and community support (🎶a little help from my friends🎶). Painful memories can be healed with… time? There’s an old saying that “time heals all wounds”, but I think it might be more accurate to say “time masks all wounds.” Once the painful memories have been suppressed over time, the good memories start to become larger than life.
Nostalgia re-writes a false past. Not a bad one, just an inaccurate one.
As I reflect on my own life some of my favorite childhood memories coincided with some of my most painful ones. How can this be? Does it mean that I forgot about the pain? No, I can remember the difficult times very clearly if I try. The difference is that I no longer associate both situations as concurrent events. I can put the bad memories into a proverbial lockbox, and suddenly the past becomes “the wonder years.” It’s fantastic that we are able reflect upon good memories and celebrate them. But nostalgia does come with a problematic side-effect: it can make it difficult to see the current wonder years and anticipate future ones.
THEY DO ACTUALLY EXIST
Current pain, fear, and disappointment can make it very difficult to see the wonder years in the present, but they do exist. For example, when somebody asks me how I’m doing, my mind will quickly establish a combined list of positive and negative things. If I’m having a bad day, the list will drift negative. If I’m having a good day, the list may lean slightly more positive. In other words, it’s fairly typical for our current situations to be comprised of a muddy average of good and bad. Even if the current situation is going well, it can’t possibly match the bliss of those past wonder years. Can it? No, and yes.
Let me be very clear about something: current pain is not fun, desirable, nor “wonder”-ful. Current pain is a horrible byproduct of the current state of the world. Broken. However, as difficult as it may be to recognize, wonderful things are happening right now and if you’re not intentional to notice it you’ll miss it.
The wonder years are happening right now. Today.
As parents, my wife and I will often look back at pictures of our kids when they were younger and think “wow, those were the days! The kids were so special back then…” And then it hits me: THEY STILL ARE SPECIAL. (Parental brag). Right NOW they are special. They are special even though their rooms get messy. They are special even though they pick on each other. They are special even though they leave old toothpaste in the sink. They are special right now.
THE DISCIPLINE OF NOW
How do we make the most of the wonder years in real time?
- Assume and conclude that they are happening right now. Despite pain. Despite the feels.
- Acknowledge the bad. Experiencing the wonder years is not about pretending that reality is all rainbows and unicorns… or that Splenda tastes like sugar. If fact, pain can help provide contrast and give us the ability to see the really good things. We ought to acknowledge the painful things, make adjustments as far as the situation depends on us, and then move on. The Pixar movie “Inside Out” illustrates this idea quite well.
- Celebrate the good. This is a choice. Find it, it’s there. Look again. Celebrate it out loud, often, over and over again. Tell someone how thankful you are for them. Post your pictures of sunsets on social media even though everyone already knows what they look like. Pop every last bubble in the bubble wrap. Eat dessert first. Laugh.
The important thing is that we stay present. Past memories will never be exactly repeated in the present and that’s okay. They were good memories, but we ought to stay present because there is more to come.