[Viewpoint] The past has its place in the present

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[Viewpoint] The past has its place in the present

Such Korean films as “Old Partner” and “The Way Home” remind middle-aged people who grew up in the countryside about the old days when they played with their childhood friends. Those movies also bring to their minds their old parents’ hands, rough from years of the hard life.

The nostalgia for a simpler time is also seen in the city, where old-fashioned restaurants still sell traditional foods such as cold noodles or seolleongtang. These places have no gorgeous signboards to compete with the glitzy, high-priced restaurants. What draws customers in is the humble flavors.

Films and foods are not the only things that stir memories of simpler times.

We are living in an era when top-notch technology products hit the market at astonishing speeds. But do you still remember the design of the old black-and-white TV? A home appliance manufacturer released a new product featuring an old-fashioned iron bar antenna and rotary-style dial, and succeeded in catching people’s attention. The moment I saw the TV in a big department store, I changed channels, without a remote.

In the digital camera market, where lightness, thinness and smallness set the standard, a Digital SLR camera designed in a robust analog system - as big and thick as an old-style camera used 50 years ago - suddenly grabs my attention. Famous photographers all over the world still carry these old-fashioned, heavy cameras to do their best work. The present is not necessarily the best.

What is the past? The past is not meaningless. It is comprised of irrevocable moments, after which nothing is ever the same.

It is universal human nature to calm oneself down and look back when troubles loom ahead. When a person suddenly faces a major life-changing moment and needs to move in a new direction, he is likely to reflect first on his past actions.

No matter what challenges the present may hold, no matter how uncertain the future may be, it is a great comfort to all of us to look back our glorious past and feel nostalgia for days gone by. The past represents a source of strength to help us move forward once again.

According to the government’s estimates of national wealth, Korea is one of world’s leading countries: Our gross domestic product increased by 0.2 percent last year, following Poland and Australia, which means that Korea recorded the third-highest economic growth rate among 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The country climbed two notches to ninth place in the global export ranking this year, continuing to achieve a record-breaking export share in the world market, from 2.6 percent to 3.0 percent.

Of course, there are many views and interpretations of the nation’s economic indices. However, today we can proudly say that Korea demonstrated that its economy was among the world’s strongest as it rapidly overcame the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global financial meltdown.

However, are our lives satisfactory befitting our growing stature in the world?

The OECD report explains that Korea is ranked at 25th out of 30 countries in terms of the happiness index. Korea is also ranked as having the highest suicide rate among member countries.

Although a nation’s economic strength and the happiness of its people do not necessarily coincide, Korea is not in good shape. There was no improvement in people’s satisfaction, regardless of the ever-growing economy.

Personal income and happiness are not always directly linked. It leaves room for questions about whether a per capita GDP of more than $30,000 dollars is enough to guarantee well-being.

It looks as if Koreans have been put under collective hypnosis so that we all believe we can become happier as we become wealthier.

It may be time for us to think over this simple proposition: Material affluence without emotional maturity and composure will impoverish our society and economy once again.

Let’s take time to cool off. I am not saying we should refuse to achieve faster economic growth or become sluggish. But we still must take time to reflect on the past and feel its consolations, remembering the proverb, “The rice stalks are bent with grain.” The past has its merits, and we should reflect upon it before we take our next step forward.

The 21st century has been dubbed the era of uncertainty. To gain wisdom, it is desperately necessary that we look back on our past from time to time.

*The writer is a professor of psychology at Korea University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Sung Young-shin
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