You’re fooling yourself if you pine for the good old days without putting those memories in context
Stephanie Koontz, one of my favorite social historians, WARNS HERE about the potential pitfalls of nostalgia:
In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to revisit and renew our ties with friends and family. It always involves a little harmless self-deception, like forgetting the pain of childbirth.
In society at large, however, nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the good things in our past. But memories, like witnesses, do not always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We need to cross-examine them, recognizing and accepting the inconsistencies and gaps in those that make us proud and happy as well as those that cause us pain.
In my work as a historian and in my relationships as a friend, teacher, wife and mother, I have come to think that the most useful way to understand the past, and make it work for you, is to look at the trade-offs and contradictions that, however deeply buried, can be uncovered in every memory, good or bad.
Happy memories also need to be put in context. I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.
But others could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others. Some white people recognized that their happy memories of childhood included a black housekeeper who was always available to them because she couldn’t be available to her children.
Some sons and daughters realized that their idyllic summers at the beach happened only because their mother had given up something else she had very much wanted to do.
Some husbands — and those were among the most touching interviews I did — came to understand that the homes they regarded as personal oases seemed more like prisons to their wives. They were then able to support a wife or daughter who chose a course that took a man out of his comfort zone.
These people didn’t repudiate, regret or feel guilty about their good memories. But because they also dug for the exceptions and sacrifices that lurked behind their one-dimensional view of the past, they were able to adapt to change. Both as individuals and as a society, we must learn to view the past in three dimensions before we can move into the fourth dimension of the future.