I’ve been swimming in the past lately. Last week was my 30th high school reunion. Last night I went out to dinner with an old high school friend who couldn’t make the reunion and who lives out of town, as well as another friend from that era whom I haven’t seen in years. I texted with an old co-worker about pretty big goings on at a company where I used to work. This morning I awoke to see that a different high school classmate had posted on Facebook about her experience of coming back into town after almost twenty years away. Her verdict: things were simpler then.
When I was a kid, I hated when older people used to give the “back in my day” speeches. “Back in my day kids didn’t always have a phone up against their ear.” (They meant the wall phones we used to drag into our rooms on long cords. Imagine if they could have foreseen cell phones). “Back in my day kids used to go outside and play instead of sitting in front of the boob tube.” (They meant Saturday morning cartoons. Imagine if they could have foreseen Netflix and Prime and Hulu and YouTube and…). It had always been better in “their” day, a claim we couldn’t verify, since we hadn’t been there.
I have a natural resistance to nostalgia. I suppose, in part, it is because I grew up with adults who missed two separate things: another time, and another place. They regaled me constantly with tales of how wonderful it had been “back home,” the great times they’d had, how everyone dressed up for the movies and for dances, the good times spent outdoors with dear friends, dearer than they could ever be here. It didn’t occur to me until I was older to ask: if it was so great, why did you leave? And imagine my surprise when I finally got to travel to the place of their nostalgia, only to find it wasn’t anything like they remembered it. Time had marched on there, too.
I was sure that when I got older, I would not be nostalgic. I was only partially right. My conviction to be nostalgia-free came from a place of naivete. I had nothing to be nostalgic about yet. My past was shallow, still palpable. But the past stacks up, like old books full of stories, some heartwarming, some bitter, each containing something crucial and unique, some part of you tucked in its pages. It is impossible to remember and not be tugged, somehow. Impossible for me, anyway. The past holds sway, and tells a story not just of itself but of the present moment: I was this, now I am that. It is in the measuring of the distance that we travel through the poppy fields of nostalgia.
But I still hold on to my aversion to the “good old days” view of the past. It was not simpler back then. Life may seem simpler when you’re a teenager, maybe, when you have a limited view of the pitfalls and problems. (Although, I for one, would not accept any amount of money to go back to my adolescence). Life was not better in the past. I am always reminded of something I read about our modern day, although I’m sorry to say I do not remember the original source (just be assured it was not me), and it is this: any monarch from any era before the Industrial Revolution would envy most every person living in modern America. Certainly you, if you have the internet access to read this post, have a wealth of information at your fingertips that no king, no rich merchant, no marauder, no conqueror, no empress ever possessed. You can get into a metal tube and fly in it to somewhere halfway around the globe in a matter of hours, a thing that would have taken them months to achieve, if it was even possible. If you get a cut, you don’t need to fear that it will fester and kill, or that babies will die in their cribs from childhood diseases. We have medicine, modern travel, the information infrastructure, and a thousand other advantages over most of humanity throughout most of human history (and, truth be told, over much of humanity today as well).
Ah, some might say: but the people then! The simpler times, when everybody stuck together, when people loved each other more. Those times are myth, too. Since time immemorial, people have been backstabbing and abandoning each other, looking out for their own interests, disappointing each other. Yes, they’ve been loving each other, and treating each other well, too, just like they do now. Fundamental human nature doesn’t change, in its complex weave of base and lofty, hopeful and morose. We were neither saints then nor sinners now. We are always both, in varying measure from time to time, from person to person.
What we yearn for is more time, plain and simple. We yearn for the past because it meant there was more time in front and less behind. But that is the human condition, to be both aware of the passage of time and powerless to stop it. One of my favorite quotes is from D.H. Lawrence: “I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.” (I use this when I want to buck up and do something hard). But here’s the truth: the wild thing doesn’t feel sorry for itself because it has no sense of itself in time. Give a bird a watch and the ability to understand its implications, and it will weep in corners for its nests gone by.
It is in the inevitability of the passage of time that we find the antidote to nostalgia. The past is gone, irrevocably, and longing for “how things used to be” will not bring it back. In fact, nostalgia is a kind of abdication of responsibility. Mired in the past, we do not need to craft the present. Romanticizing a past that was messier and more nuanced than we remember robs the present of its splendor. Today is dazzling, and spectacular, if only because it is the only thing that’s here, now. Humans are pattern recognition machines, but the patterns we choose to see are entirely up to us. You can make today the stuff of legends, if you’d like. And tomorrow, you can put it aside for the next grand adventure.