One of our current county commissioners here where I live has a favorite expression that he voices whenever the discussion turns to the differences between the way things are done now and the way they were done in days gone by:  “We’re not in Mayberry anymore.”

I understand what the gentleman means when he says this, but each time I hear it I find myself fighting back the urge to respond: “We never were living in Mayberry! Mayberry doesn't exist. It’s an entry in the Atlas of Make-Believe, like Gotham City and Hooterville and Moosylvania. It’s a myth!”

Well, perhaps not a myth, exactly. More like an idealization... a representation of the way we wish life could be, as opposed to the way it really is. When we express concern over the perceived passing of Mayberry, we are mourning not the end of an era but the imperilment of a mindset. The realization that we've reached a stage in our existence where life can never again be as simple as it once was. If, indeed, it ever really was that simple to begin with.

Each generation, as it ages, likes to think of its particular place in history as a time of great virtue and innocence. I don’t want to be the one to burst anybody’s bubble, but each generation – mine included – is wrong. The golden era of our youth was no more virtuous or innocent than anyone else’s. We simply see it that way because, hey, it was OUR youth. That brief but glorious period when WE were the center of the universe, before the next generation came along and yanked the dad-gummed rug out from under us. 

Disrespect for our elders isn’t reserved merely for the elderly; these days it begins when a child tells his or her parent in a snotty voice, “That’s so five minutes ago.” And the parent is suddenly waxing nostalgic for that world that has so suddenly ceased to exist. 

Wouldn’t it be great, we tell ourselves, if life could still be the way it was back when we were young? Before the dark times of the modern world? Never mind that each previous generation had its own dark clouds - war and civil unrest and assassinations and political scandals. Our era was better because... well, because it was our era. ’Nuff said. And if everyone else would just see it that way and live accordingly, it would be a perfect world.

Mayberry may well be the ultimate expression of that way of thinking. Hey, I'm not knocking it. I love Mayberry, too. It’s the world as it ought to be. Neighbors helping neighbors and Aunt Bee’s fried chicken and spending Saturdays at the ol’ fishing hole. Yes, sir, that’s the life.

The world always seems better in black and white. Maybe that’s why the later color episodes of The Andy Griffith Show have never been quite as popular...

Such were the thoughts that ran through my mind when I heard of the death of Andy Griffith last week. We shared the same birthday, Andy and me. We also shared a preference for a simpler way of life. A way of life that he and I and legions of fans have celebrated for five decades through our mutual love of that place called Mayberry.

Griffith himself said more than once over those five decades that Mayberry was nothing more than a myth, a fascade. But I would argue that it is a necessary myth. Because it provides those of us who live in the real world a glimpse of what that world might be like if we all try just a little harder to make it so.

What makes Mayberry special is not the sense of nostalgia it creates, because nostalgia is so often the product of false memories, wistful dreams and misperceptions. Mayberry is special because, in its own folksy and simplistic way, it shows us the best of what humanity can be.

There are those among us who laugh at the ideals Mayberry represents. They call such ideals corny. Unrealistic. Even ridiculous. One old acquaintance of mine once referred to Mayberry as a “cornpone Utopia,” a “sanctuary for simpleminded fools who can’t bear to admit that it’s an ugly world.” (This is the same fellow, by the way, who as a teenager rooted for Darth Vader in the original Star Wars films and absolutely hated it when the cinematic villain returned to the Light at the conclusion of Return Of The Jedi. He enjoys embracing the dark; I enjoy telling him he’s got a screw loose...)

There are times I fear my friend may unfortunately be right. I recall the negative comments hurled in Griffith’s direction a few years back when he appeared in a public service announcement in support of President Obama’s health care reform. People who claimed to have been fans all their lives now shook their fists and called Andy Griffith a traitor to America and swore they'd never watch any of his TV programs or movies ever again.

I have to admit, that response always confused me. Personally I saw Griffith's support of the health care plan as a real-world expression of the values his show and Mayberry represent, and which those fist-shaking protesters claimed to hold dear. I still feel that way.

Mayberry may not be real, but those values are. I long for the day when seeing those values as a true way of life isn’t relegated to reruns of an old television series...

(Copyright © 2012, by John A. Small)