Nostalgia: Gazing at the Past through Now-Colored Glasses
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers”
– A quote occasionally attributed to Socrates
Nostalgia is a tricky thing. We all know it can warp our perceptions of the past, but sometimes it’s easy to forget how much it can do so. On occasion, in fact, it can become a downright hallucinatory experience.
For instance, between the ages of eighteen and twenty, I was stationed in and around Japan in the U.S. Navy. I loved everything about the experience: the food, the culture, the sights, the people, you name it. People still say to me, “Man, that must have been so cool to travel to Japan at that age,” and I reply, “Yes, yes it was. I was an incredibly fortunate and enlightened young man. Not only that, but I was always mindful of just how fortunate I was.” Or something to that effect.
The problem is, when I really think about it—when I push aside all the sentimental considerations—I remember that I didn’t actually love it. Not at the time, anyway.
Yes, being stationed in Japan was interesting and far outside anything I had ever experienced in my insulated eighteen years on Earth, but that was actually part of the problem. When I lived in Japan, I wasn’t nearly as interested in new and unusual things as I am now. In fact, the things I was most concerned with then were cigarettes, beer, music, and anything that happened to contain generous portions of those three. The fourth thing I was concerned about—only slightly less than the cigarettes, beer, and music—was getting myself back to the U.S.
Sad, I know. Take your best shots. Do it now. I deserve them all.
By all accounts, I should have loved living in Japan. My mind should have been blown, in a good way. But it wasn’t Japan’s fault that I didn’t get it. No, it was all on me, with my self-centered, short-sighted eighteen-to-twenty-year-old disposition. Certainly, I appreciate it now, and I know (or at least hope) that, possessing the knowledge I have now, were I able to return, I would appreciate the experience in the moment, rather than having to wait until years later. And trust me, I’d go back to Japan in a half heartbeat.
But if I say I loved it then, while I was actually living it, I’m lying.
Another example: High school. These days, I look back on my tenure and cringe, wondering how I ever survived. When I hear people say that high school was the best time of their lives, I immediately feel deep pity for them and, occasionally, also scope out the nearest exit, just in case.
When I was a teenager, I knew people who had their shit together. I wasn’t one of them, unfortunately. Now, I chide myself constantly for those lost days, thinking what I could have done with my life if I hadn’t been such a slacker, if I’d only had a bit of drive and determination then, the heights I could’ve reached, the depths I could’ve plumbed.
You know what, though? If I’m being honest—which is a leaf I’m making a concerted effort to turn over these days—I don’t think I really hated high school at the time. It was an inconvenience, certainly, with its endless days of having to get up early and having to do things. But I had friends then, people I’ve been lucky enough to be able to reconnect with, something I doubt would have ever happened without social media. And, as usual, friends are what help us through things like high school. They’re also often the only things we miss when it’s too late. All that said, I’m beginning to suspect high school wasn’t nearly as bad as I like to think it was.
So, nostalgia. I should have loved living in Japan; therefore, through the lens of nostalgia, I did love it. All signs point toward the fact that I should have disliked high school, which means I did hate it. There is a point to all of this, by the way—above and beyond me talking about high school and living in Japan, I mean—and it has to do with the possibly-Socratic quote from before.
My point is this: It is all too easy to fall into the trap of misremembering our own pasts and judging the present—including younger generations—in light of those flawed views.
Many times, I hear people my age, and sometimes younger, talking about how, when we were young, we didn’t have the luxury of doing this or that. (Falling into the “When I was your age” trap, by the way, is something I will fight until my final halting breath to avoid.)
The mantras go something like this: We didn’t make excuses, we didn’t have drugs to make us behave, we always took responsibility for everything we did, we appreciated everything we were given, we were always satisfied with what we had, we respected our elders, we cleaned up after ourselves, we were shining examples of everything good and pure in the human spirit.
In short, we were awesome.
When I hear these platitudes, though, the only thing I can think is that, again, if I’m being honest (see previous leaf reference), I have to say I don’t remember it that way. Also, I remember you, my friend, and I don’t recall you being as saintly as the portrait you’re painting.
So I wonder, is it possible that we are retroactively endowing ourselves with the qualities we want to see in today’s youth?
I’ll answer that: Yes, it happens all the time.
In the same way we can re-evaluate our past experiences based upon present knowledge, we can also reinvent our own once-upon-a-time selves based upon our present worldviews. Based upon the only data I have to offer, which is my interaction with late teens and early twenty-somethings on a regular basis, I don’t believe they’re doing anything significantly different than what my generation did, not in principle, anyway.
They just have much cooler toys.