Beyond illusions

by Terence MacNamee

When countries look back on their history, not even their remote history if they have one, but on their fairly recent history, they may feel that everything was terrible and the views of previous generations have to be denied and censored. And there is more to this than just political correctness. It does leave us in a quandary when we realize that our “founding fathers” or “glorious heroes” were in many ways such a woeful bunch. We can no longer honour them without a guilty conscience. And hardly any of them is immune to having feet of clay. Are we going to be left with anything to be patriotic about at all?

But really, it is like when individuals look back on their past, especially from the vantage-point of age. When I look back on my earlier life, even my midlife, I can only think what an ass I was. But I have to be able to let go my illusions, one by one, even though it’s painful. Time and time again I got it all wrong, or at least partly wrong. And guess what? I’m probably still getting it partly wrong. A lifetime is not sufficient to get it right. So why even try? But I know no other path to wisdom.

Is this a universal experience? I doubt it. My guess is that many, even most people are preserved from it. Their attitudes just harden, and they look back on what great guys they were. I have little doubt that holding on to illusions makes older people happier, at least more contented with themselves.

Countries don’t want to give up their illusions about themselves either, because if the examination of conscience becomes too searching, they fear throwing the baby out with the bath-water, that is, losing their identity altogether along with their illusions. But if individuals can do it and somehow survive and move on to a new stage of life, countries can too. If they can even let go things like their presumed historic mission, their raison d’être as a nation, it might even free them up to find and fulfil a new historic mission, a new raison d’être.

What you are left with in the end is not “my country right or wrong”, but “my country without illusions”.