Nostalgia for the World We Knew

This was published as a newspaper op/ed on May 23, 2020


One of the interesting experiences I get from watching old movies (off my DVR) is that I get to glimpse often the world as it was when I was growing up.

I see the skyline of New York as it was when I first saw it in 1955 (which has a very different feel from that cityscape today). I see the cars on the streets with those glorious shapes – every make a distinctive sculpture – that I learned to recognize. I see neighborhoods looking like those in which I played sandlot ball and marbles.

I imagine that the nostalgia I feel for that world exemplifies a feeling that’s pretty widespread — a special feeling about the way things were when one first experienced being alive in the world. (Maybe even if our childhood was not a happy one.)

Whether or not that earlier world was better than what it changed into — whether or not the world of Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart is better than the world of Beyonce and Brad Pitt – our beginnings are a special time of life, and it seems natural to have twinges of nostalgia for the world we’ve watched disappear.

In some ways, that would be true for most people in every generation of humans—even those who have not lived, as we do, in a world of super-rapid change (our lives being transformed by things like computers, the Internet, and cell phones). At the very least, every generation grows up in a world populated by cherished people  – parents, grandparents, teachers – who eventually die, never to return. Nostalgia attaches to the memory of valued people and things lost.

I believe my own nostalgia for that world I explored as a boy is partly a function of stage-of-life. My feelings lend support to one of the clichés our culture has about older people: that they can really get into talking about “the good old days.”

(My wife and I often take delight in getting into some piece of our shared history. Six years separate us, but the overlap is considerable. We were both Minnesota Twins fans at the same time. We find some of the same songs evocative of meaningful memories.)

Partly, that affection of older people for the past is a function of the fact that the older we get, the more of what we have loved – people, aspects of the world itself – we have seen come and go.

And partly it seems that the later stages of life are naturally a time for looking back, of taking stock, of considering how time carries everything along – including ourselves – until it is no more.

So I’m guessing that — my being now 74 – my nostalgic turn is in part an old-man thing. But only in part.

Something else that’s big is going on — something else specific to these times — that has given that backward glance an especial poignancy.

It’s true that a dark shadow over that earlier time – the cold war threat of nuclear annihilation  — has receded. But new fundamental dangers are threatening – dangers that disturb me at an even deeper level.

So my nostalgia for the America I grew up in is for a country that one could pretty well count on –despite some real exceptions — to be decent, fair, reasonable, constructive, and respectful of the basic moral values of our civilization.

  • Growing up, I never worried about whether American democracy would survive.
  • Never worried about whether the rule of law would prevail.
  • Never worried about whether the United States would alienate and antagonize the world’s most free and decent societies, while embracing some of the world’s most thuggish regimes.
  • Never worried whether a great many of my fellow Americans would give their support to someone who made things worse — with both his words and his deeds — – with an extraordinary consistency.

When so much that has been good gets degraded, it is especially easy to get nostalgic.

(Nostalgic for the America I first knew– a nation that had just saved the world in World War II. For a nation that chose for President a man — Dwight Eisenhower – whose distinguished record assured the nation that Americans could rely upon his fulfilling his duty; rely on his ability to make respectably sound judgements on how to achieve important national purposes; and rely on his be able to provide effective management of large and complex measures on which much of the nation’s good depends. )

With such dark forces stalking the present, then, the feeling of looking back with a sense of loss contains more than the usual nostalgia. The sense of loss bites at a deeper level than some general “remembrance of things past” – i.e. it’s about more than the loss that’s inherent in the nature of time.

It is also a yearning for a world that embodies those qualities that should be enduring, regardless of what else may change.

Yearnings for a world in which power is wielded by the best elements of our humanity, and not by the worst.


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