The Problem with Nostalgia
Recently a tarot friend posted a meme on Facebook. It was a lovely picture of people riding bicycles in the sunset. The quotation on it was a simple question that went something like this. "How has society changed since you were a child?"
Many of us answered the question. A few answered the question very directly, without value judgments, mentioning technological developments like the personal computer and the cell phone.
I was shocked by the number of people who turned the question into an invitation to make a value judgment. Many gave answers that basically said, emphatically, that they believe society has changed for the worse. They cited things like more violence, less trust and less respect. No one quoted any actual statistics; it was all just their perception.
I was shocked by this for a number of reasons. First, the original poster is one of the most positive people I know. I also know a number of the people who answered, and had never thought of them as being "negative" people. The fact that they would so easily take such a quantitative question and leap into a qualitative negative assessment disturbed me.
Equally disturbing was the fact that people were so quick to decide that our society is "worse" now than it was in their childhoods. They couldn't actually give real statistics or specifics to back up their particular claims, even when I gently asked them questions like "How are our morals worse now?" and "In what way is there less respect now?" The answers across the board basically said "It just is," as if I must be blind not to have noticed these things myself.
Are there things about our present society that disturb me? Of course there are. Overall, do I think things are somehow worse now than they were when I was a child, say, forty-odd years ago? No, I don't; not at all.
Here's why. When I was a kid, sexism, racism and homophobia were much more prevalent than they are today. DDT threatened the very existence of the birds and the butterflies. Ricky beat Lucy every night on television and people thought it was funny. When I was in my twenties it was the height of the Cold War. Most of my compatriots and I feared our lives would be cut short any minute by nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
In my lifetime I have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandala transform from prisoner to president, and much greater sensitivity to diversity. Do we have problems in our current society that scare me? Of course we do. Do I miss my youth? Who doesn't? But I have to wonder why so many people seem to believe that we are moving in the wrong direction.
It seems to me this is nothing new. I remember people in the late 1960's and early 1970's shaking their heads and wanting to go back to the 1950's. I remember Deadheads in the 1980's wishing it were the 1960's instead. I shake my head at the medieval festivals that make the Dark Ages look like fun.
My mother used to say that distance improves our perception of things. We forget the bad and remember the good. In some ways, that's a good thing because it helps us heal. In other ways, it may be less helpful.
Our tendency to whitewash our history may cause us to long for the past, and value the past more than we value the present and the future.
Now, politicians are promising to "return the greatness of America" and call for us to "go back to the things that made our country great." I would like to vote for someone who wants to go forward to greatness, rather than backward.
I wonder, too, if the majority of us long for the past, how can we, as a society, create a positive future? And why are we so unwilling to look at the cold hard facts about our past and our present? Was there really less violence in the past, or was it just not reported? Is it possible that the internet and the 24-hour news cycle give us a more negative perception of our present when compared to a time when the national news was reported only once a day for half an hour?
Yes, times are tough. But what would happen if we were grateful for the wonderful things in our lives, both past and present? What if we looked to the future with hope, rather than with fear? What if we worked to change the problems in our society with an eye on the future, rather than on the past?
It may be time for us to override our tendency to forget the difficulties of the past. Instead, it might do us well to remember them and learn from them as we move forward to a better future.