Grieving for our Childhood, Not our Country
The place I lived as a child . . . has completely vanished. . . there’s no evidence that any of what I remember actually happened, or that the people I knew ever existed. . . The place I thought I was going is imaginary, yet I have lived here most of my life.(1) “Back Home”by Louis Jenkins
I love this poem. It so perfectly captures the unconscious mythology of our childhood. Even if there is still evidence of where we came from, when we return, it’s often far from how we remember it.
And this is how nostalgia forms: we long for a place and time created in our young minds, which may or may not have a basis in reality.
In 1688, Johannes Hofer wrote his medical dissertation on the ailment of “nostalgia or homesickness,” considering the terms to be interchangeable, and this is believed to be the earliest publication on the topic. Hofer formed the word nostalgia from the Greek words nostos, meaning homecoming or return to the native land, and altos, meaning pain or suffering. By the twentieth century, however, homesickness and nostalgia no longer meant the same thing. For a while, homesickness denoted a psychological problem (and was treated as such) while nostalgia became associated with a pleasant remembering.
But is nostalgia really a remembering? Certainly, it is a longing for the past. But often this is a past that never truly existed, or existed only in our limited experience. The past then, that which we long for, is an idealized place and time. A time when things were simpler. But the only time, truly, that things were simpler was when we were children. And it was simpler because we were children. Our parents, and adults of any time in history, still dealt with the same problems we deal with today.
There’s a great scene in the Woody Allen film, Moonlight in Paris, that speaks to the fantasy of nostalgia. Gil, the main character who is struggling to finish his first novel, has somehow stumbled on a way to reach the iconic 1920s, where he befriends Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the Fitzgeralds. This is the time and place in history which he has always idealized. He also meets Adriana, the lover of Pablo Picasso. One night they are both able to tumble even farther back in time to the Belle Époque era, which Adriana considers the true Golden Age of Paris, where they meet the artists Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas. When Adriana is offered a job designing ballet costumes in the late 19th Century, she decides to stay and Gil returns alone to Paris in the ‘20s. Once he realizes that the 1920s in Paris is just like any other time in history with people having the same problems, he returns to the present and stays there.
We like to think that other times were simpler and better. We romanticize the absence of modernity as quaint and calming. If only, we think, we could return to an earlier time.
I have friends who are fond of posting images of places that no longer exist in the neighborhood where we grew up. The places where we shopped, ate, and played. Like the Woolworth store with wooden bins. We had so much fun there during our grade school years, ambling through the narrow aisles, marveling at tiny merchandise. But if it still existed, would we frequent it? No. Honestly. We wouldn’t. As adults, we want the variety of bigger stores and the freedom to move about with large carts that we lean on and push instead of carry. Or we shop online for convenience and even more variety.
The truth is, our nostalgia is for when we were young. When we were naïve. Romanticizing another era is a form of playing make-believe.
The tremendous technological and social changes of the twenty-first century can be frightening and confusing. It often feels like things are changing way too fast. And change is not easy; it can make us feel small and powerless. Reminiscing on another time can be comforting. But our recollections are often fabrications, based on childhood mythologies.
The United States has always been at the forefront of change. Innovation and change are what our country was built on. From horse and buggy to trains, planes, and automobiles. It was inevitable that solar and wind power would eventually compete with coal. Just as “self-service” technology replaces jobs. And cell phones have replaced landlines in the home. Oh, I rant against these things quite a bit. I miss being able to talk to a household before getting the person I really called for. I despise being told to download an app for discounts. I fume at self-service check-in at the doctor’s office or punching through options on my phone when calling a company. But others I know, particularly younger people, love the ease of these things. They love text messaging and not having to talk on the phone. If this technology was to suddenly disappear, they would lament and be nostalgic for it.
But back to coal: Did you know that modernization is more responsible for the loss of coal mining jobs than is any shift to alternative energy? According to a 2019 report from Business Insider, mechanical rock crushers and shovel swings replaced 79% of miners from 1979 to 2010, during which time coal production actually increased. And even with those fancy machines, fatal injuries and illness in coal mining is six times higher than all private industry. Coal companies cutting costs to increase shareholder profits are the number one reason why so many coal miners have lost their jobs, not alternative energy or political policy. But coal miners, like cowboys, are embedded in our cultural mythology and it’s easier to believe this way of life is being attacked from the outside than it is to recognize the culprit within.
Americans are preoccupied with change and, at the same time, resistant to it. We are a see-saw society. We want everything new and simultaneously everything familiar. We want comfort, but not at the risk of losing the comfort we already have.
A growing awareness of the laws which have systematically discriminated against people of color is threatening to those who are already nostalgic, longing for a simpler time, a time that never existed except in the innocent minds of our youth. And the people who are nostalgic are predominantly white.
Ask any person of color, Native American, Asian, brown, or black if they are nostalgic for the past. Do they miss the time before Civil Rights when colors and whites were segregated? When Japanese Americans were put in concentration camps? When Indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools? When slavery and genocide and lynchings were common and accepted? Does any person of color feel nostalgic for that America? No.
The current plague of American nostalgia stems from an adolescent point of view. When we are young, the world revolves around us. When we mature, we discover this is not true. That discovery is hard for us to accept. Like teenagers, we want our freedoms and our privilege but we don’t want to think about how these things affect others. The bigger picture is too big.
Nostalgia can be pleasant, even uplifting, in moderation – as long as it accepts the past cannot be brought back. We can never again be children. Things will never be as idyllic as we want to believe they once were.
While nostalgia is no longer considered a mental disorder, it can have a profound impact on our ability to fully enjoy the present. Clinical psychologist Arthur G. Nikelly notes that persistent nostalgia can result in “an atrophy in ego development that stifles positive thrusts toward the future and deprives the person of full enjoyment of the present.”(2) If we persist in romanticizing another time, we become unable to appreciate all the good stuff in the present and consider future possibilities.
Nikelly also notes that nostalgia can become pathological “when used as an escape or evasion from responsibility or as a form of magical restitution in order to regain the love of the lost past and to restore the ego’s self-regard.”(3) Whew. That’s quite a statement. Nostalgia, at its worst, is an evasion from the responsibility of adulthood. It becomes a sickness when we use it to reclaim the self-importance of our child self.
It’s understandable that we would sometimes be nostalgic. Life is challenging, life is hard, and the world is complicated. Being an adult requires us to be informed and make decisions that are not easy. Being an adult means there is no parent that will save us or take care of us – we are responsible for everything ourselves.
We need to allow ourselves to grieve the lost innocence of our childhood. The child inside us is begging to be acknowledged and comforted. If we can do this internal work, if we can take care of our inner child the same way we would a physical one, we will learn to carry on. To be grateful for what we have and work toward a more equitable and honest future.
We will stop grieving the fantasy of an America that was once “better” and accept that our country is as it has always been. There has always been corruption and greed, the haves and have-nots, racism and discrimination, the abuse of power, and political ideologies that disagree. There has always been crime and con artists, ignorance and innocent victims. The only change is the modernization of means. And the biggest difference now is that we, as adults, are responsible for dealing with these things. It’s our turn now to be elders.
Growing up isn’t easy, but it is a privilege. As is our democracy. And neither should we be too quick to dismiss.
(1) “Back Home”by Louis Jenkins (The Winter Road.) Holy Cow! Press, 2000
The place I lived as a child, the sharecropper’s farmhouse with its wind-bent mulberry trees and rusted farm machinery has completely vanished. Now there’s nothing but plowed fields for miles in any direction. When I asked around in town no one remembered the family. No way to verify my story. In fact, there’s no evidence that any of what I remember actually happened, or that the people I knew ever existed. There was my uncle Axel, for instance, who spend most of his life moving from one job to another, trying to “find himself.” He should have saved himself the trouble. I moved away from there a long time ago, when I was a young man, and came to the cold spruce forests of the north. The place I thought I was going is imaginary, yet I have lived here most of my life.
(2) Nikelly, Arthur G. “The Anatomy of Nostalgia: From Pathology to Normality.” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 1 (2), 2004. Page 184
(3) Ibid. Page 188