Nephi Son of Helaman lived in a world turned upside down. During the course of his lifetime, the Nephites went from being the good guys who had the Church of Christ in their midst to being the bad guys controlled by secret combinations, robbers, wealth-getters, and other doers of dastardly deeds. The Lamanites, on the other hand, had become the righteous ones—the ones who had to warn the Nephites to return to God. So it is certainly understandable that Nephi longed for better days:
Oh, that I could have had my days in the days when my father Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem, that I could have joyed with him in the promised land; then were his people easy to be entreated, firm to keep the commandments of God, and slow to be led to do iniquity; and they were quick to hearken unto the words of the Lord—Yea, if my days could have been in those days, then would my soul have had joy in the righteousness of my brethren. But behold, I am consigned that these are my days, and that my soul shall be filled with sorrow because of this the wickedness of my brethren. (Helaman 7:7-9)
Nephi’s Lament is both tragic and poignant, but like most such tributes to times past it is also historically problematic. The original Nephi did not spend a lot of time rejoicing in the righteousness of his brethren, as two of these brethren kept trying to kill him. HIs was perhaps the most divided generation in the Book of Mormon—the time when the people of Nephi split into the warring factions that persist throughout the text.
But Nephi’s lament is understandable. We all like to look back to a time when things were better. I once had an institute teacher tell the entire class that the 1950s were the high point of American righteousness. He was remembering Wally and the Beaver, praying in school, and movies where nobody swore. He conveniently forgot the Klan, the lynchings, and the rampant persecution of anyone who didn’t look or act like a member of the Cleaver family. But I do it too. I will never agree that anybody making music today can compare to Queen and Styx. My dad felt the same about Harry Belafonte and Johnny Mathis.
There is something deep in our cognitive architecture that causes us to idolize past times and deprecate present ones. We tend to filter out the bad stuff in our memory and remember everything being better than it really was. Conversely, we tend to filter out the good things in our current line of sight. I suspect that this has an evolutionary basis. Keeping track of threats is much more important to our survival than smelling the roses. It is only in memory that our Pleistocene forbearers could afford to take their eyes off the lions, tigers, and bears. Natural selection does not care whether or not we are happy, and pessimism is a much more adaptive outlook than hope.
But historiolatry has its discontents. For one thing, it is almost never accurate. Past times were never as good as we imagine them, and the present day rarely sucks as much as our Facebook feeds would suggest. If Nephi were really reading the plates of his namesake, he might have realized that the time he was longing for was an era of bitter conflict and great unrighteousness. And if he were looking around his own society a little bit more, he might see that the mass conversions of Lamanites to the Church of Christ was one of the most significant things to have happened in his world since the original divide.
Furthermore, using an idealized version of the past to denounce the sins of the present traps us into a destructive narrative of perpetual decline. It is a narrative that religious people have always loved, despite its fundamental hopelessness: the world was once almost perfect, and it has been getting steadily worse ever since. The high point of civilization—be it King David, Charlemagne, the time of Lehi, or the Eisenhower Era—has passed, and all we can do is continue our slide into suckitude until God decides to wreck the place and start over. In the meantime, the best we can do is criticize “the world” and thank God that we are the only righteous ones in it.
In this way, generations of human beings have deprived themselves of hope in anything but a cataclysmic end and have let their misplaced nostalgia for a golden age that never was blind them to the beauties of the present world–which is, in every way that matters, a precious gift from God.