My dad used to have a lapel pin with the single word, Aiglatson, printed on it in such a way that the word seemed to be spiraling out of sight. The button always raised eyebrows, and elicited questions. "What does Aiglatson mean?" Of course, Aiglatson is nostalgia spelled backwards. The subtle, underlying message of the button is that we often twist and distort the past in the course of looking back on it.
I thought of Dad's old button when I read an article in the May issue of Funny Times, written by Co-publisher/editor Raymond Lesser. Entitled "Kite String Theory", the article waxed nostalgic about the good old days in which the author grew up. He noted, however, that everyone tends to wax nostalgic about their past, including a 12-year-old in his son's school class who wrote a poem about the lost simplicity of VHS videotapes.
Engaging in an episode of nostalgic remembrance once in a while is not altogether harmful, invoking as it does a pleasant feeling of warmth, not unlike eating nachos or tossing down a shot of peppermint schnapps. (Then again, wetting your pants also feels warm for a while, or so I've been told.)
Much like dancing, playing cards or video games, and gardening, repeatedly entertaining nostalgic longing can become habit forming, leading to loss of productivity and general feelings of malaise.
Most dangerous are the times when we forget that nostalgia is a distortion. It is all too easy to become cynical and negative about the present, as well as the efforts of those trying to make the most of it, by constantly contrasting the here and now with the "Once upon a time...".
I am especially concerned about institutions, including the Church, that have withdrawn from the hard, important work of visioning the future we wish to create. True visioning cannot take place when the most compelling image of the future a distorted, nostalgic longing for a comfortable past. As my mother was fond of saying, "Things just aren't like they used to be, and what's more, they never were."
One of our two (reportedly) national political parties has been characterized as The Party of 'No'. I think it's more accurate to say that the Republican Party is often The Party of No-stalgia, stating the desire to return this country to its former values, which imply Christian, male, white, English speaking, and heterosexual. The good old days are sought, like the 50's (1850's or 1950's...your choice). Of course, this begs the question, and distorts it, as to what extent the country ever truly embodied such values, and whether that extent was a good thing for anyone not Christian, male, white, English speaking or heterosexual.
In The Life of Reason, George Santayana wrote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I wonder what Santayana would have said about those who cannot remember the past objectively, yet employ their distorted, nostalgic recollections to justify present decisions and actions?