Nostalgia is powerful and addictive. Like most addictive things, it lies to you.
My mother sees the time period of her childhood as a kind of golden age. She watches the Andy Griffith Show as if it’s an historical time capsule, captured in amber, an accurate depiction of when things were simpler and people were happier. She remembers her childhood during the 1950’s as a magical time when everything made sense. She doesn’t understand why things have changed, she’s afraid of how different everything is and and how it feels like nothing makes sense anymore.
But the 50’s in America weren’t perfect. There was injustice, hatred, and violence while the Cold War loomed large over everything, threatening nuclear annihilation at any moment. The world she wants to remember, that Leave It To Beaver era, is just as real as the paths I walked through the Mines of Moria back in the day; dearly loved but not very real. After all, we all need our fantasies to get us through the day.
Like any drug, there’s a time when it become dangerous. Nostalgia for the past paints the past in glowing colors and forgets, or refuses, to acknowledge the darkness. Because, here’s the thing, nostalgia is a lie. It’s a pretty lie but it’s still a lie. Don’t be fooled by it. Don’t believe it.
As a history student I learned a lot of things–how to b.s. my way through a term paper, how to form and shape a persuasive argument, how to identify an author’s bias and recognize my own, but possibly most importantly I learned that people in the past were pretty much like people of the present. Oh, sure, cultures change, empires rise and fall, but human nature has remained steady across the ages. Every era thinks that their problems are worse than the problems that came before, that their people are less moral, that their society is less just. You’ll see the same opinions, the same fears, the same prognostications of doom across the ages. It doesn’t matter how far back in time you go, the grass is never greener than it is on our side.
History has to be confronted, in all of its imperfections, so that wounds can heal and we can make better decisions and do better things than those who came before us. We were taught, for years and years, in Sunday School manuals and Seminary lessons, a Mormon history that was smoothed over, all of the rough parts sanded off. It was nostalgic history, an easy one to believe in, a nice story to tell. But it wasn’t an accurate one. It may have been derived from good intentions, the desire to remember the best and forget the worst, but just look at what has happened since. People inevitably discovered the rough parts on their own which led to doubt and dismay for a lot of people. If we’d been lied to about one thing, it naturally leads one to wonder what other lessons were full of half-truth and misdirection, what other truths were founded on lies.
I’m all for the messy version, the one where I discover that all of my faves are problematic, that everyone is human and has made mistakes. Because those mistakes make them human and their imperfect humanity gives me hope that I, that you, that everyone can fall down and get back up again. It gives me hope that we can be better.
Don’t believe nostalgia. We don’t need to be made great again, we need to be made great now. That’s the struggle. That’s the point.
We weren’t great, we aren’t great, but we can be great. We’re great when we uplift the downtrodden, we’re great when we recognize the wounds of the past and work to heal them, we’re great when we protect the vulnerable, when we recognize our shared humanity and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, as we love our God. Maybe greatness isn’t a destination, maybe it’s something we learn along the way.
Nostalgia is a trap. If we spend too long pining for a time that never was we can be blinded to the opportunities we have here, now.
Our duty is not to go back and recreate a golden era that never was but to create a better world here and now.