Looking back: How nostalgia gets it wrong

If you were a white, stereotypical, middle- or upper-class male, the past probably was lovely. But if you were female, non-white, an immigrant, LGBTQ, or just didn’t fit into your narrowly defined gender role, it was an oppressive time. It wasn’t until I heard Reverand Bill Sinkford speak at First Unitarian in Portland that someone articulated the problem with nostalgia.

What inspired this post? This article from The Independent by psychology professor Dr. Peter Gray. I agree whole heartedly with his research on the importance of play, but in the third paragraph, he writes,

“I’m lucky. I grew up in the United States in the 1950s, at the tail end of what the historian Howard Chudacoff refers to as the “golden age” of children’s free play. The need for child labour had declined greatly, decades earlier, and adults had not yet begun to take away the freedom that children had gained. We went to school, but it wasn’t the big deal it is today. School days were six hours long, but (in primary school) we had half-hour recesses in the morning and afternoon, and an hour at lunch. Teachers may or may not have watched us, from a distance, but if they did, they rarely intervened.”

I doubt that it was that simple, and I doubt that this was really true for a majority of kids. What about African-, Asian-, Latino-, Irish-, Jewish- or Native-Americans? What about poor white kids? Were they enjoying unprecedented free time after school where they could roam the streets safely? What about kids who were questioning their sexuality or who knew that they were different? What about girls who were told that their life goal was to find a husband and keep a house? How did they feel about being “lucky” in the 1950s?

This article from the Atlantic quotes These Happy Golden Years when a snow storm requires Laura Ingalls Wilder to get to work teaching school with no snow plows to make her own way, but she never thinks about canceling school or a 2-hour delay and even marks some kids tardy. Oh how wonderful life was back when people worked hard without complaint and kids respected their elders! Wendy McClure is quoted as saying, “You have to admit that the Little House books are constructed, and there were definite artistic decisions and efforts to portray things a certain way, and leave out other things.” This is the most important piece of this article: memories are inaccurate or incomplete.

Homecoming Sunday at First Unitarian Church was a profound turning point in my understanding of nostalgia. In his sermon on Sept 11, 2011, called Paradise Found, Reverend Bill Sinkford puts it succinctly,

“Now, nostalgia has its place. There’s merit in that vision and integrity in that lifestyle…. But looking backward to a lost eden can also be a retreat. A retreat from this world that can feel so difficult to understand and to navigate well, filled with so many obstacles to health and wholeness. This world can be unfair and even dangerous. It can be appealing, even seductive to wish the present away, and seek a return to a simpler way, a purer and more innocent time. A time before people of color and undocumented workers and their families became such a problem. A time when gender roles were clear and distinct. A time of abundance with the economy growing and jobs plentiful. A time of security and confidence in the future….

The main problem with yearning for [the ideal past], however, is not in the specifics. The main problem is that it encourages a rejection of this world here and now, with all of its beauty and possibility, as well as its problems. There is no encouragement to take responsibility for the way we live now and little incentive to help create heaven, here on Earth, in that vision.

… Eden never existed, of course. Or rather, it existed for only a small slice of our people. If you were poor or a person of color or queer the only place for you in that Eden was as a laborer, a servant or in the closet. Poor women and women of color always worked. And even if you were lucky enough to be middle class and white, the gender roles were constraining at best. There was unhappiness even in those households.”

We have different social, environmental, medical, and psychological problems today than they had sixty years ago, that’s for sure, and 60 years from now they will be different too. I would rather engage with the world as it is and let my vision of the future evolve, than escape into inaccurate and incomplete memories that belie a better time. It is here and now that I use my privilege to work for a better, fairer, more just world.