Remember when…

A community center in St. Louis, from my summer living there in 2007.

I’ve been pretty nostalgic lately. Part of the reason is moving back to the town I did my undergrad in. Part of it is getting to that point in my life where I’m staring 30 straight in the face (which is not at all compounded by the approaching of my 10 year high school reunion next year). My wife and I were talking about nostalgia recently, and she mentioned a quote that she heard. To paraphrase, nostalgia is “remembering things that never were really there.” She mentioned this in relation to certain friendships that she used to have and in the sense of looking fondly on past relationships that weren’t actually that good, I can see it working. But I want to push back on this idea (surprise, surprise).

While I can see this function of nostalgia, I think it only goes so far. It assumes that our minds construct something good where there was nothing at all. This isn’t the case. Selective memory plays a part, but I don’t think it plays a part by creating something that didn’t exist. Rather, I think that it focuses its attention on the pleasant aspects of the past. This is exactly what happens when someone who was in a bad relationship starts to say, “but he was so nice when he did this.” I think what’s going on here is a psychological defense. In order to avoid the pain of the past, nostalgia works to promote the good aspects of our past experiences. Instead of seeing the abusive language used of a former lover, the constant refrain may be one of “but he/she always helped financially” or “he was always so fun to be with just walking around downtown.” The promotion of the good seeks to create a structural defense so that we won’t be brought back to unpleasant and painful experiences.

This works culturally too. When you look at the way certain individuals talk about American history, often times you hear “remember when everything was closed on Sundays and Christmas?”  or talk of a time when “people just got married and women stayed at home.” This is the same type of selective memory protection, but on an ideological level. What isn’t seen is the promotion of one religious ideology over another. What isn’t seen is the sexist attitudes inherit in gender hierarchies. What isn’t remembered are the difficult events that mess with one’s ideological structure. Like remembering the occasional fondness of a verbally abusive lover, we all remember the things about our cultural past that promote and protect our ideology.

The unfortunate problem with nostalgia then is this; in only remembering the good, we lack the ability to confront the trauma of the past. In doing so, we never truly “get over” anything and the cycle of destruction repeats again. We justify these repetitions by saying things like, “she doesn’t have a good picker (in regards to choosing lovers)” or “I just can’t seem to do anything different.” Without the confrontation that comes with staring our painful and harmful memories in the face, we don’t advance and we limit our ability to become something else. We remove the possibility of incorporating our past experiences into our present life and attaining something more truthful and complex. We feed the lie of nostalgia, in order to protect ourselves and in so doing, we damage ourselves even more.


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