Is nostalgia a help, or a hindrance?

We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known

Is nostalgia a help, or a hindrance?

Nostalgia. The memories of things past. Tinged with a fondness, a longing. Thoughts evoked from looking at old photographs. The remembrance of the family home and a comfortable childhood. A separation between the then and the now that we can never traverse.

Why is it that nostalgia hits us, and why do we feel it? It’s important to recognise first that nostalgia is not memory. It’s not us recalling the past as it happened. It’s how we want the past to be. We’re projecting on top of the original place or event with our imagined fabrications. We’re idealising our past, because it’s our tendency to edit out the bits of history that we don’t like or cause us pain — be that personal, or collective.

In our personal experience, nostalgia manifests as a longing for the easy-going, carefree days of yesteryear. The times when we didn’t have the worries of going to work, or paying the bills, or slowly marching towards decrepitude as our bodies break down before our eyes.

But it’s not all rosy tints and paper bags of penny sweets in the park.

Nostalgia can become a terrible crutch. A means of escaping the troubles of the present by rooting the mind in the past. When we use nostalgia as a coping mechanism, we can purposefully trigger those warm, fuzzy feelings by listening to familiar music, or revisiting places where we felt comfortable in our past.

Instead of dealing with the present, of tackling our problems head on, we plant our heads in the sand. Basking in the glow of the false positive that our projected memories creates, and if you’ve been following anything I've said before, you’ll know the importance I place on being present in the now.

The other form of nostalgia, nostalgia of the collective, is far more dangerous than our personal one. A shared longing for what society used to be like. You’ve all heard people of a certain age say things like “in the good old days, people used to have a job for life, and the kids were safe going out on their own, and all the cars ran on unicorn tears.” (They might as well have done, given the context).

I remember watching the comedian Frankie Boyle talk about nostalgia. He summed it up brilliantly when he said:

Do you remember the good ol’ days? You could get fish and chips and polio in the good ol’ days. You could leave your front door open, ’cause you had fuck-all worth nicking. And no one had the strength to open the door, ’cause they all had fucking polio.

He’s right on point. How quickly everyone forgets the bad parts of the good ol' days.

Why I feel collective nostalgia is so dangerous is because when a number of people share the same world view, it becomes easier for individuals within that group to play and pretend as though this world view were true.

The more intense the group fantasy is, the more likely it is that people will act because of it. They’ll head to the streets and cry out for the past that never was, but that they remember so clearly. If that nostalgia is controlled, manipulated so that the group feels the loss of their glorious past is the result of another group of people, people who are different, then they become embroiled in negative emotions towards that other group, and even violence.

It’s a powerful tool used by dictators and the like. We saw it in the 1930s during the rise of Nazi Germany. We’re seeing it in Europe and the United States today, with the rise of nationalism and the sweeping tide of xenophobia. We’ve seen it recently in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic, where government marketing has pushed to evoke the wartime age of community and sing-song, bringing people together in a spirit of camaraderie as though they were inside a 1950s musical. Like the good ol’ days.

My final words on this — don’t get caught in nostalgia’s net, and remember that what you remember is not necessarily what actually was.