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When Nostalgia Comes to Pass

Two recent conversations -- one public, one private -- both about seemingly disparate topics, have ushered forth to my mind their conflation in one general regard: We tend to value most, the time of our life when we were young. Sometimes, the sense of nostalgia can be warm and fuzzy. Other times, melancholy. On certain other occasions, it can be crippling. But it all seems to center around the time of our lives when we were young.

Consider a situation in my town where a few older houses might be torn down to make way for an expansion of one of the local high schools. The vote to approve this passed handily a year ago, however, a preservationist group has officially protested the demolition of the houses. It has created quite an interesting public conversation in the community about looking ahead, vs. what is worth saving from our past. The dialogue, thus far, has been both fascinating and frustrating. While we've learned more about our city's past, we've also seen the topic derailed somewhat.

Conversations about whether or not to preserve the aforementioned older houses has, almost predictably, drifted to issues of other parts of town, and how they've changed over the years (never for the better, of course. It's almost always never for the better, which feeds into my overall point about nostalgia). Some folks -- of a certain age -- have openly talked about what the campus town area looked like when they were students, verses how it looks today. Again, the comparisons never favor the present.

One wonders what those who have long since passed away -- those from, say, 100-plus years ago -- would say about the campus town area of the 1950s and '60s? Going back even longer ago, what would those who first built the area think of the changes in the 1910s, '20s and onward? I'd argue that there would be a clash of opinions. There almost always is between generations. We really tend to like the way things were back when we were between the ages of 10 and 20 (give or take a few years). Such perspectives are, to say the least, subjective.

Enough of the public (houses vs. school expansion) debate, what of the private conversation I mentioned earlier? Basically, it centered around the notion that life is never as good as when we were children. While being an adult has its pros and cons, childhood is sacrosanct. There's not a better time of our lives. Etc., etc. You get the idea. Again, I believe we're dealing with a false nostalgia.

While my childhood was certainly a good one (overall), and I have so many fond memories of it, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that I much prefer being an adult. For one, there is a sense of our own agency that we have as adults that childhood simply cannot provide. And, if we're being objective, the glorious, carefree nature of being a kid comes at the expense of the adults who raise us. Children can be children because their parents or guardians carry the burden of life's responsibilities on their shoulders. They adult, so kids can be kids. You can't have one without the other.

When having the discussion about childhood, I remarked that what I miss most about being a kid is the people who were there that aren't here now. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins.... all those who have since passed away. They were the ones I looked up to growing up, the ones who were, well, always there. At least for a time. But it's worth bearing in mind, again, it is a false nostalgia. Becoming used to seeing certain people at a time when our consciousness is developing and becoming aware of things, doesn't necessarily mean that that was the best time of our lives. It just means that was the first occasion for us to become used to things.

I have no problem with nostalgia. Heck, half of what I write on this blog could be categorized as 'nostalgia dwelling.' But there are limits. A certain objectivity must be realized. At the very least, we must acknowledge that, before we start going down memory lane and becoming misty-eyed at how much better things used to be, what we're really saying is: Things were a certain way during my more carefree, younger years, and I associate better times with those memories and period of my life. When it comes time for objectivity, that isn't the soundest foundation upon which to stand.

I felt safe and protected and happy-go-lucky (for the most part) as a kid. It doesn't mean the world was a better place then. People remember structures and communities from a time when they were younger and less worried about life than they would later become. Just because those structures and communities haven't stood still while we've aged, doesn't mean those things are somehow worse now. Now, things certainly could be worse, but if someone's going to make that argument, they need to do more than just say, "Back in my day, things were different."  That's like saying the sky is blue.


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