Nostalgia: the Art of Half-Remembering
I’m sure you have seen half a hundred or so posts on Facebook, or conversations with friends that start something like, “I grew up when you could…” or “Do you remember how great it was when…” or any version of such thoughts. I don’t mean the “I walked to school uphill both ways” variety (though even those are of the same ilk) but the kind that end up letting you know that there was a time when people were nicer, the world was safer, life was simple, and generally all was better than it is now.
To that I say… that’s nice.
It is. It’s a nice memory. It lifts up some wonderful aspects of life we once knew. But there is the rub. It lifts up “some” aspects. The joy of such memories is that we are very selective about what we choose to remember. We would not wax so nostalgic about a time without women’s suffrage, with unchecked apartheid, and polio epidemics.
This is true even personally. I may say it was easy when I was a child and my major concern was whether I would get home from school before the neighborhood backyard whiffle ball game started. But I say this forgetting the angst of being a child who didn’t always fit in, a student often overlooked for being quiet, or an athlete who was never quite good enough to compete at the level I wished to no matter how hard I tried.
Nostalgia for a time that once was is usually actually a wish to have a dream that never existed. They are edited memories, half-remembered with most of the negatives forgotten or repressed.
(Are you ready for a little amateur psychology now?) I remember the first time I learned about object relations theory. A really basic simplistic version might go like this. As an infant with a primitive mind we create an internal “object” in our mind for everything we relate to in the world. When we get hungry we cry out and mom comes to feed us. Internally we create an object that is mom. This mom object is good. She feeds us, changes us, rocks us to sleep. Mom makes the world better. In the primitive state we can only imagine mom being good. At some point the real world will prove different. Mom will not hear us crying some day because she is in the shower, doing laundry, trying to keep her job she does on top of the job of raising me (imagine that! I’m not my mom’s whole world? Actually the infant can’t imagine that.) The infant then creates a different internal object… bad mom. Bad mom and good mom are two totally different people. This is how the primitive mind works. In our healthy and mature moments later on as a adults we are able to merge these two different internal objects into the one object they really are. But there are times they still split (its called… wait for it… splitting). We split people back into the two different internal objects we have created to represent them.
When do we see this happen? Well lots of times, but mostly you will see it when a family member dies and the family basically only remembers the good stuff. Essentially the bad internal object of that person died, and the good version lives on in memory. I’m sure you have heard that eulogy when someone is waxing poetic about how great someone was (sometimes they do this to protect people, but sometimes they are truly convinced this is how it was… we are talking about the later) and you are thinking… whose funeral are we at again???
I name this now because we tend to do this with the past all the time. We remember what we liked about it and we forget the rest. We idealize the world that was. We also have a tendency to focus a lot of our energy of the present on the negative side. We focus on what is horrible (that which contrasts with our idealized past) and forget to mention all the great good that has emerged as well. We do this with society, we do this with our families, and we even do this with the church (or any institution/community).
Let’s face it. We are all a lot more internally primitive in our thinking and relating than we like to admit. We could all use with a dose of perspective about much of our lives (hardships AND blessings) both in the past and the present. Nothing is quite so bad, or probably quite as good as we make it out to be. We are all a mix of everything.
Now you might ask yourself this, so what? What’s wrong with that Andrew?
I will answer that by borrowing a concept from an ethics professor, Marcia Riggs. She used to talk about raising moral awareness. I love that phrase. No, really – I LOVE that phrase. It might just describe my life’s work. And raising moral awareness is about learning perspective, remembering fully, being aware of issues of which we usually prefer to be ignorant, and recognizing our own responsibility and culpability.
None of this work is aided by waxing nostalgic for a world that never really existed. And even if that world did exist, it doesn’t now, and escapist fantasy won’t make the world we live in now heal, blossom, and grow. Working to remember fully is healthy, working to see clearly both what is before, but also what is around us is essential. Learning the consequences (good AND bad) of our lives is desirable (at the very least). So let us all seek not to edit what was, or even what is, but look fully at all what we are both good and bad (without so much judgment even because we begin to realize that we ALL are both good and bad). And maybe let us not seek refuge in the past that never was instead of seeking to make the tomorrow that is not-yet more palatable than the today we lament.
Though I would love to play a pickup game of whiffle ball in the backyard right about now, who’s in?