The Good Old Days, for Whom?
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I hold a handful of snapshots from my life very close to my chest—memories of times when I felt carefree, safe, loved, or happy. If I really focus, I can still smell my mother’s cup of coffee that she drank every morning out of her Precious Moments mug, or I can see the sunset on my grandmother’s farm, or I can feel the chills running up my arms from staying up with friends on a cool night to look at the stars.
In recent months I have seen many posts on social media and on blogs where people seem nostalgic for something they once had. One post read, “I wish we could go back to the good old days when kids knew how to be kids.” The accompanying image was of two adorable children sitting on a park bench eating ice cream, in what appeared to be the 1950s. A post from somebody my age had a picture of a large TV strapped onto a tall cart positioned in front of an elementary school classroom. The picture read, “No greater feeling than returning from P.E. to see this in your classroom.”
Nostalgia is powerful in its ability to instantly transport us to happier places when life is tough, but it is also powerful in its selectiveness: nostalgia reminds me of how I felt at that particular moment in time, and does not necessarily reflect the reality of that particular time. An easy point of reference would be memories of high school. Ask people how they felt about high school, and you will likely receive one of two very polarized responses: either they would give anything to go back to experience it all again, or you could not pay them a billion dollars to go back and experience it again (I, for one, am among the latter). It can be easy to forget that our memories of the past are not normative.
In fact, remembering our shared history is tricky. How does one report history? Whose memories are reported or written down? Writers of history books might do their best to retrieve images, documents, and artifacts from the past to piece history together for the present. And yet, representations of the past are always partial. History is contested. Perhaps you have heard it said, “History is written by the victors,” and there may be some truth to that. Oftentimes the privileged narrations of history come from the people with the most power.
We always hold hidden histories. This is true on the communal and the individual level. People are a bit like icebergs in that what you see on the surface—in your conversations around the water cooler, or in the hallways at school, or in line at the coffee shop—is only 10% peaking above water. What you don’t see is the 90% of that person’s life, the 90% that is really calling the shots for whatever you experience on the surface. People hold dark memories that are rarely exposed. We even hold dark memories in our faith tradition, right? Jesus told us to gather around a table to remember him. And then he was brutally humiliated and murdered by the empire. Our religion is marked by a deep wound, and sometimes we barely let it surface. We much prefer our brighter memories over the memory of the wounded Christ who called us to engage the wounds of the world. We prefer a faith with selective memory.
The same is true for our society, where dark memories are tucked away in preference for the brighter ones. This is especially true when our society feels more tumultuous than usual. When life begins to feel less safe, less happy, less comfortable, we go to our happy places. And sometimes, in doing so, we forget that our memories of the past are not normative.
Recently I saw many people on Facebook share a picture from an old sitcom, in which a black man and a white man were clinking their glasses together. The image read, “To the good old days, when we could make fun of each other without everyone getting their panties in a bunch!” Unsurprisingly, I did not see a single person of color “like” the image. Nostalgia is powerful in its selectiveness. Where a white person may recall better days when they could laugh about race without being called out, a person of color may remember derision, dehumanization, and pressure to laugh off the mockery
Every person has nostalgia, regardless of social location or background, and not all nostalgia is dangerous! In fact, much of nostalgia is a blessing. I don’t think anybody would argue with the blessed remembrance of the smell of baked goods or the feeling of belly-aching laughter or sacred experiences of nature in all of its unpredictable wonder. However, I worry when we reach for a bygone era—one that was maybe “great” for certain people, while others struggled to survive with limited rights.
Last week I went to listen to a lecture given by world-renowned chef Massimo Bottura. His small Italian restaurant in Modena, Italy, is regarded by many to be the greatest restaurant in the world. His joyful and quirky spirit exuded into the room as he spoke of the poetry of food, his passion for community, his love for his team of sous chefs and cooks, and his desire to make the world a better place one meal at a time. But the most important thing he said was in response to a question from the audience. A young man raised his hand and said, “Tonight in your lecture you featured a dish with potatoes, but potatoes are not native to Italy. Potatoes were brought to Italy by immigrants. How do Italians respond to your use of non-traditional ingredients in your Italian restaurant?” Massimo did not hesitate one moment. I paraphrase his response, as we were not able to record his lecture, but he said something like, “You are correct about the potatoes, I know. Tradition is so very important.” He reminisced for a moment about his grandmother’s influence on his cooking, seeming to become lost in nostalgia, but then he returned and said this: “Tradition has brought us here. But sometimes tradition did not do right by the ingredients or the people. Are we sure our traditions respect the ingredients? If they don’t, it is our responsibility to change them. We change the recipe. We break the tradition. We do right by the ingredients that come to us and we do right by the people.”
So when the world feels like it has gone mad, or when life becomes uncomfortable, before you rush for nostalgia, ask yourself this question: did that moment in history do right by my neighbor? When I want to retrieve that “better time” or “the good old days”—for whom were those days good? I know you know the answer to this, friends. So, cherish your memories, yes, but not without discernment and not without love for your neighbor. If you want better days ahead, change the recipe to do right by all people.