Think about your first memory. It’s probably fairly mundane and from when you were about four years old. I’m in my kitchen, grabbing at the edge of the countertop with my fingers, hoisting myself up high enough to see the formica at eye level for the first time. Pretty boring, but also pretty momentous, and more importantly, as to why I recall it, pretty coherent. There’s a clear narrative there—I could do something for the first time that I had never been able to do before. And that something had to do with being able to see my small world in a new way.
Now, think about your favorite memory. If you’re like most people, one didn’t just pop into your head—you’re reviewing a range of memories from childhood, from college, from last Tuesday, and you’re settling on one that has meaning for you right now. It could be the same favorite memory you’ve had for years, or it could be a new one, but you’re probably giving it at least a cursory reevaluation before saying it out loud.
And just like that, you’ve gone from the land of objective recollection to subjective evaluation. While humans may have computational powers, we’re not machines—there’s no way to arrive at a definitive best-memory-ever answer. Indeed, you may well have forgotten your best memory, or the best thing to ever happen to you, leaving you grasping for something that kind of, but not really, fits the bill—and feeling a bit of longing for something you can’t quite put your finger on.
It’s this frailty of the human brain that makes nostalgia such a powerful but also problematic emotion. A memory can feel great, until it doesn’t. You can remember your father’s hugs—until you also remember his belt, or perhaps the fact that he’s dead. You can remember your wedding day—and then a split-second later remember that you’re divorced. Nostalgia comes from two Greek words; nostos means “return home,” and algos means “pain.” Some memories are of course, purely happy ones. But when we are asked to remember happy memories, we necessarily trim away the pain. We couldn’t function otherwise.
That individual trimming isn’t the problematic part. But when nostalgia becomes a social enterprise—when our history is sold back to us in an idealized form—we end up in a kind of sham present, where the hard lessons of the past are pushed aside in favor of a glossy vision of it.
Nostalgia for “simpler times” in America, for example, can lead to the kind of white male nationalism that we’ve seen in the campaign and presidency of Donald Trump. His movement purposefully ignores and marginalizes the strides towards equality that have been made by every other race and gender over the past sixty years.
And that’s where memory—whether direct, or received from elders or pop culture—can be most subjective. As bad as the present may seem, the people who actually lived in those “simpler times” had less education, less health care, less equality, and less ability for economic and social advancement than today. It’s a little like the fallacy of past-life regression: no one ever thinks they were once a lowly peasant, or died of disease at birth. But we couldn’t have all been princes or kings. Now is still the greatest time to be alive, in other words, for the vast majority of humankind.
Nostalgia for a time and place that we can never actually get back to does something very insidious to our present—it acts as a big drain on our empathy towards those actually around us. Rather than live in the actual emotions and environs of the present, be they joy, pain, or ennui, nostalgics manufacture a kind of trap for themselves—a sweet pain of longing for a circumstance that can never be, and never really was.
There’s nothing wrong with remembering. Quite the opposite—collective memory is the basis of civilization. My first memory of striving to see something new, I feel, kind of defines who I am today. And individual memories of family, friends, and special moments are part of what constitutes our personhood and sense of identity. But longing to return to the past—or really, longing for an idealized version of the past that never existed—takes us away from confronting the challenges and seizing the opportunities of the present. The past is not an option.
Our culture and commerce have increasingly laid this trap for decades now. From VH-1’s I Love the ’90s to Buzzfeed’s viral quizzes about being an ’80s kid, to the Star Wars reboot to the Marvel universe of unending comic-book movies, mass media seems determined to shove us into the past. Facebook’s celebration of friendship anniversaries, often complete with vinyl-record animation, are particularly strange, since they only encompass the time people have been Facebook friends, not real-world friends. (Though those numbers are likely to converge as social media continues to invade our lives.) All these phenomena suck the oxygen out of the room for new culture, new connections, new ideas, and new experiences.
What to do in the face of the nostalgia trap? Like many dialectical traps, the first thing is to realize it exists (hopefully by now you do). The second thing is to figure out if you are caught in it, which, by casual observational survey, many of us seem to be, at least at some times, and to some degree.
The way out, I think, weirdly, is to remember. Remember it all, the good and the bad. Start a new paragraph when reminiscing, even if you don’t know how it’s going to end. Study history, so as not to misunderstand or idealize it. Remember how good it feels to learn something new—and to make a new memory.
Nostalgia is really a form of privilege—the idea that there’s anything in our real or imagined pasts to return to means that we have been fortunate in this world so far. So rather than look back and keep counting our (real or imagined) luck, we should turn our gazes forward, and think about creating a present and future that the we can one day remember, without sanitizing, as truly better than what came before it.
Read more of the Quartz Ideas series on The Nostalgia Economy.