Remember way back when, when you could reminisce about the good old days without some wise guy coming along and telling you that much of your memory is just a fantasy. Yeah, that way back when never existed.
Humans have a tendency to look on the past with warmth and even longing. This is true when reviewing history as well as when reviewing our individual experiences. You have probably heard someone say something like “My family had it rough when I was coming up, but we always had each other.” The person then goes on to wax wistfully about how they were desperately poor, surviving paycheck to paycheck and occasionally living in the car or a shallow ditch, and yet they were ever so much the richer for how their nightmarish existence drew them together.
I am indulging in hyperbole, of course, but you recognize the pattern. As we move away from the past, we tend to start smoothing the rough edges of memory. Sometimes, our new perspective allows us to see things we could not see before or recontextualize our experiences or recorded history to understand them better. But too often, we are just selectively editing the real picture. It is like observing a rock, first up close with all its coarseness and jaggedness and then at a distance as a smooth surface. I don’t know if it is because our memories are inherently faulty or we just have a desire to idealize the past, but having no training as a psychologist, I haven't the expertise to consider this phenomenon from a clinical standpoint. Instead, my approach will be more prosaic and pragmatic.
Nostalgia is a longing for a version of the past that is imbued with a great deal of sentimentality. Of course, there is much to admire and even desire about the past, but nostalgia erases the undesirable or clads it in a shiny new veneer. Certainly, we need to comprehend the past to better understand our present and even our future. The problem with nostalgia is that notion of sentimentality, though, which is like seeing that rock from across a field and admiring its flawlessness despite an awareness that up close we would easily recognize its coarseness, cracks, fissures, edges, and pockmarks.
Nostalgia works much the same way, and it is fraught for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is simply wrong. It is a distortion and misapprehension of our past, and if we cannot grasp the past, we certainly cannot fully grasp the present or anticipate the future.
Second, in eradicating or editing the reality of the past, nostalgia can lend itself to delaying or even denying righteousness and justice. Those who long for a greatness in America that allegedly marked the period of the 1950s and early 1960s peer through a narrow scope that eliminates the oppressive circumstances that minority populations of every type and women lived under. To pretend otherwise is just not factual.
Nostalgia, though, smooths all those sharp edges like a cultural opioid. Our nostalgic minds tell us that white men back then were all epitomes of masculinity, which they lorded over their paragons of femininity, who in turn enjoyed carefree lives. Blacks, in this fantasy, occupied some space in the background, but they put up a noble fight for justice, which everyone except really bad people supported. All this is absurd, but, worse still, it necessarily casts any present-day fight for justice as wrongheaded, counterproductive, and quixotic.
Third, nostalgia is inherently pessimistic. The hyper-nostalgic phrase “make America great again,” implies three falsehoods about time: that there is some sort of greatness endemic to the past, that we no longer can experience greatness, and that we are on a path that leads us even further from the achievement of greatness. This last falsehood is the nature of nostalgia, to idealize the past while implying that the future is bound to be bleaker. The “again” in “make America great again” may promise some ability to recapture past greatness in the future but only by fabricating a past that never existed outside of febrile minds. Left to its current path, the “carnage” that the proponents of making America great again claim marks the present can only culminate in a dismal future. The phrase itself offers not hope but a sense of a lost cause, a noble defeat that must be revenged.
In reality the past is, like the present, neither all or largely good nor all or largely bad. It is a mix. People love depictions of, say, eighteenth-century Europe as a world of fancy clothes and beautiful people, but whatever beauty and nobility existed then was offset by the reality of the age. The massive issue of class and the disregard for most life aside, even the upper crust had no running water. Until you are willing to conquer the matter of the close stool, spare me your desire to live in the past. If you doubt me, read Jonathan Swift’s satiric poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732) for a fine example of the difference between illusion and reality, and remember, “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia, shits!” And if you are up for even more fun read Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s rejoinder “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to write a Poem called ‘The Lady's Dressing Room’” (1734), which offers an alternative perspective: "You'll furnish paper when I shite." To be transported to that time, as one romantic television portrayal fantasizes, and to thrive, you would have to start by radically adjusting your attitude about basic hygiene.
My apologies if my tiny foray into eighteenth-century hygiene left you a little nauseous, but any queasiness you may experience reminds me that nostalgia itself was first identified as a disorder among soldiers who were suffering a sort of amped up homesickness. Nostalgia is a malady.
Nostalgia, because it erroneously rewrites the past, leaves us wallowing in error, injustice, and pessimism. Nostalgia is a stew of retrograde fecklessness. Although we are all prone to nostalgia to varying degrees, those who wallow in a fanciful past in lieu of facing current realities and their consequences undermine society’s ability to forge a new and bold future. Our current lot will not improve, howsoever fleetingly, unless we squarely and honestly face the past and present in order to foresee or even forge the future. Learning the past, the true past, stripped of fantasy and undo sentiment can help us see through the romance of lost causes and such. Only then can we achieve true unity in our future.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.