I recently heard a podcast from, The Daily, a podcast created by the New York Times, titled, "When the Culture Wars Came for NASA". You can listen to the entire podcast by clicking here. In this podcast, I heard a term I'd never heard before; presentism. The podcast went on to explain how NASA's choice to name its latest telescope the James Webb Space Telescope became very controversial and how a popular American scientist and researcher was berated for defending the telescope's name. Just listen to the podcast...it's really good. But, the term presentism was introduced and after finishing listening to the podcast I became deeply troubled over how presentism is affecting not only our history, but how I FELT after listening to the podcast.
So, let's dive into what presentism is and how I have come to see it as a bad thing for our mental health.
What is Presentism? To delve into the effects of presentism on mental health, we first need to understand what presentism entails. Presentism refers to the tendency to interpret past events, cultures, and individuals through the lens of present-day values, beliefs, and knowledge. It involves judging historical figures, events, and societies based on contemporary standards, disregarding the context in which they existed. An example of presentism can be seen when evaluating the actions of past leaders based on current ethical principles, without considering the societal norms and limitations of their time.
Presentism can manifest in various forms, each with its unique implications. Here are some common types of presentism:
Ethnocentric Presentism: This type of presentism occurs when we evaluate historical cultures or civilizations solely from the perspective of our own cultural values and norms, like portraying Jesus of Nazareth as White with blue eyes. It often leads to a distorted understanding of the past and hinders our ability to appreciate the diversity and complexity of different societies, such as Netflix's latest show about Cleopatra.
Scientific Presentism: Scientific advancements continuously reshape our understanding of the world. However, scientific presentism refers to the tendency to dismiss or belittle past scientific theories and discoveries due to our current knowledge. This dismissive attitude can undermine the achievements and contributions of earlier scientists, diminishing their significance.
Technological Presentism: With the rapid pace of technological advancements, we may overlook the accomplishments and struggles of earlier generations. Technological presentism involves underestimating the complexity and ingenuity of past technologies, leading to a lack of appreciation for the groundwork laid by our predecessors.
Now, presentism isn't all bad. By critically examinin
g historical events and figures through a modern lens, we can identify and rectify past injustices, learn from past mistakes, and promote inclusivity and equality. However, when presentism becomes the dominant lens through which we view history, it can have adverse effects on our mental well-being.
While presentism may seem innocuous, it can have profound effects on our mental well-being. Let's explore some of the ways in which presentism impacts our mental health:
Unrealistic Expectations: Presentism often creates unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others. Comparing our lives, achievements, and relationships to an idealized vision of the present can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and chronic stress. The constant pursuit of perfection and the fear of f
alling behind can take a toll on our mental health.
Anxiety and Fear of the Future: By excessively focusing on the present, we may neglect planning for the future. This can result in anxiety and fear about what lies ahead. Without considering the lessons and experiences of the past, we may find ourselves ill-prepared for challenges and uncertainties, leading to heightened anxiety levels.
Loss of Historical Perspective: Presentism's disregard for historical context can lead to a loss of perspective and a narrow worldview. Without understanding the complexities and nuances of history, we may fail to appreciate the progress made over time, fostering a sense of pessimism and cynicism about the future.
Disconnect from Identity and Roots: Ignoring or misinterpreting historical events and cultural heritage can create a sense of disconnection from our identity and roots. Understanding the struggles and achievements of our
ancestors provides a sense of belonging and helps shape our own identity. When presentism erases or distorts this historical connection, it can leave us feelin
g adrift and lacking a solid foundation.
While presentism's effects on mental health can be significant, there are strategies to mitigate its negative impact:
Historical Awareness: Foster an appreciation for history by learning about different eras, cultures, and perspectives. Understand the social, political, and cultural context in which events unfolded, helping to develop a broader understanding of the complexities of the past.
Mindfulness and Self-Compassion: Practice mindfulness to cultivate awareness of the present moment without judgment. Embrace self-compassion by acknowledging that you are doing your best with the knowledge and resources available to you. Avoid comparing yourself to an idealized present and instead focus on personal growth and self-care.
Balanced Perspective: Strive for a balanced perspective by considering both the strengths and limitations of the pa
and present. Recognize that progress is a gradual process and that societal change takes time.
Presentism, the tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present, can have far-reaching effects on our mental health. It distorts our understanding of history, creates unrealistic expectations, breeds anxiety, and disconnects us from our roots. By cultivating historical awareness, practicing mindfulness and self-compassion, and maintaining a balanced perspective, we can navigate the impact of presentism and foster a healthier mindset.
If you find yourself worried or sad about our present reality, or you want to learn more about building greater compassion for yourself or for others, reach out to me by going to my website, bwcouseling.net,
and let's strategize together to build a better you.