The Dangers of Nostalgia

Earlier this year, I went to a talk at Boston University with Iraqi translator and writer Sinan Antoon on the topic “Translation and the Work of Mourning.”  While his remarks as a whole were thoughtful and thought-provoking, the one concept that lodged itself deepest in my mind was this: in speaking of a Palestinian poet whose work he’d been translating, Antoon remarked on the twin traps of nostalgia and nationalism.  It was easy, he said, for Palestinian writers to fall into idealization of the past or of the people in their works.  The work of a great writer was to avoid both sinkholes and tread the narrow path.  One of the works he had most recently translated, by the great Saadi Youssef, had been entitled in English Nostalgia, My Enemy.

As I transition from one phase of my life into the next– academia into the as-yet-unknown– I am reminded that as far as nostalgia goes, it is not only Palestinian poets who must carefully skirt its edges in order to keep on going.  I’ve heard from many well-meaning people that college or graduate school were the best times of their lives, and I wonder whether their experiences of those years were nearly as stressful as my own.  And yet I sometimes find myself slipping into the same trap, thinking fondly of the high school days when I didn’t have to worry about apartments, employment, or making something worthwhile of myself– until I bring myself up short, recalling the emotional turbulence and severe loneliness those years also held.

On a personal level, such nostalgic delusions may be harmless, though perhaps frustrating for other people.  On a societal level, though, they can be downright dangerous.  I was once in a discussion group with a number of (mostly white) senior citizens, and when the conversation turned to domestic policy and economics, a consensus soon reigned that everything had been much better four or five decades back.  The one black member, increasingly uncomfortable, eventually raised the point that despite fond memories of stability and prosperity, the mid-twentieth century had not been idyllic for everyone.  More worrying, the rise of the Golden Dawn party in Greece has made it amply clear that remembering only portions of the past– a better economic situation, greater national confidence– can clear the path for forgetting terrors that should never be forgotten.

This theme is hardly lacking from religious texts and discussions.  In the Exodus narrative– maybe too familiar to many for us to hear it clearly– the escaping Israelites turn to Moses and cry out, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (14:11) And later, again, “There [in Egypt] we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (16:3).  Usually, I’ve heard these passages discussed in sermons on lack of faith: if only they had had more faith, had trusted more in God and their deliverance, then they would not have “grumbled” so much.  But you can’t say it doesn’t make sense.

Finally, I struggle the most with the nostalgia trap when it comes to relating to the current situation in Syria– maybe something Saadi Yousef would understand too well.  The situation there now is horrific and intolerable.  The UN High Commission on Refugees has registered nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, a figure which doesn’t include Palestinians or Iraqis who had fled to Syria as refugees themselves or the many, many more who have had to flee their homes but have not been registered as refugees.  Aleppo, the ancient seat of culture and trade, now just begs for water.  Looking back three years, it seems an obvious comparison: at least then there was stability, there was water, there was food, there were jobs, there was ice cream and friendship and shopping malls instead of barrel bombs and killer thirst.  Was it because there were no graves in 2011 that we came to this juncture?

Because this comparison is so easy, I cannot find it in me to condemn those– especially those refugees, immigrants, and asylees from Syria– who look back and wish they could turn back time.  I cannot find it in me to condemn those who initially supported the peaceful protests calling for reform or even sent their family members out with blessings to join the opposition but who have since changed their opinion and wish only that their children could attend school and their lost loved ones be restored.  That is not and never will be my place.

When I go too far into nostalgia myself, though, recalling the tranquil beauties and the culinary treasures and the hospitality of the Syria that was, I am pulled back from that brink by honesty about the dark side of that Syria and by the strength of spirit of some of my Syrian friends who still believe that their bright future lies ahead.  As they continue to plan and work for a tomorrow that includes justice, equal citizenship, and human rights, I know that it’s also not my place to naysay their take on things.  Theirs is not the obvious answer.  Honestly, at this point, it is not the one that makes sense.  Haven’t they seen those numbers; haven’t they seen those ruined buildings and bodies and lives?  But of course they have.  And so grumbling may sometimes be a lack of faith; but here, for me, maybe not grumbling and denying my own seductive nostalgia will be my tribute to someone else’s faith.

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One thought on “The Dangers of Nostalgia

  1. Thank you Elise for your interesting blog. I agree that nostalgia can be a trap that binds us to the past and stops our progress for the future, particularly when we don’t look back with honest eyes. I find it’s helpful, for my our personal progress, to appreciate the experiences that have helped me develop my relationship with God. Some of these experiences may not seem good to others but I know how these challengers have helped me value God’s goodness in the presents and how they foster my confidence in good for the future.

    I don’t want to be like Lot’s wife who’s salty tears of longing, sadness and regret turned her to salt and paralysed her ability to live good now and in the future. If my thoughts are constantly filled with the past how can I be receptive to and feel the inspiration of good that God is imparting to me right now.

    I think your last point is crucial. Those in Syria and around the world who at present face loss, sadness and devastation are not helped in their efforts to work towards a future of justice, equality and human rights by my indulgence in the “nostalgia trap.” Mary Baker Eddy a 19th century spiritual thinker wrote “ We own no past, no future, we possess only now.” and later, in the same piece, she further explains that “Faith in divine Love [God] supplies the ever-present help and now, and gives the power to act in the living present’”.

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