Nostalgia sells. We are therefore caught in its grip. What we don’t always perceive is how it is holding us back.
Hoping to live days of greater happiness, I forget that days of less happiness are passing by.Elizabeth Bishop
Nostalgia is a ‘sentimental longing or wistful affection for a time in the past’. It is a yearning for things and times lost to the ages. Nostalgia provokes us to remember the great experiences of our past and to see them as long gone and distant. Nostalgia in this way is a barrier to us seeing that those moments have made us and are still with us. There are no ‘halcyon days’. The past had its awful moments, more than today, but we have edited out the negatives from our memories.
Like any emotional connection, it will be exploited by marketers, trend setters and culture creators. The waves of ’80s themed music, movies and other experiences is just an effort to leverage our nostalgia for commercial success. We can have fun and enjoy nostalgia but there is a real danger if we become stuck there.
In exploring the many arguments of the lockdown vs let it rip debates gripping Australia and other markets through this pandemic, I have been struck how both sides are in the grip of nostalgia. The ‘let it rip’ advocates often explicitly say they want to ‘get back to their lives’. More subtly the strongest advocates of remaining locked down argue that we need to remain so ‘until this passes (& we can get back to our lives).’ We see the same dynamics in many similar debates in this time – working from home vs returning to the office, how schooling should be conducted, what leadership is, how we communicate, and more. Instead of building our future from what was, we need to build a future around what we need and what works.
Nostalgia is a barrier to constructive change when it provokes the emotions that make us look back to solutions that no longer suit our lives, our times or our place. Our politics is full of people on both sides evoking the past as a productive way forward when our challenges are new and our society has changed. If we make the past, the standard by which all solutions are judged, we will miss the solutions that promise real and effective change.
I love an 1980s dance tune as much as the next person who lived through that era. I don’t for a minute want to go back to my awkward teenage years. I learned what I learned from that time and I have lived a life since. The potential to use those life lessons is much more important to me that any longing for any particular time, place or era.
When things are gone, we can’t bring them back with wishing. We need to grieve and move on in the here and now. Nostalgia can be an enjoyable escape. It is a major barrier to the effective change we need in our lives, work and society.
As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,Billy Collins, Nostalgia
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.
PS For the ultimate nostalgia blast, Abba have a new song, ‘I still have faith in you’