Instant Nostalgia

Complex challenges in the world are seeing people wishing they could go back to the past. It is a familiar kind of nostalgic pattern, except that an emotion that previously was reserved for a time two or three decades back is now being applied to more recent times — last year or last week.

As always with nostalgia, the new instant nostalgia is not a sincere admiration for all the problems of last week. What is sincere about it is a desire to escape the new problems of today.

Escape never solved the problems of the world, but there is a point to be found in instant nostalgia and the escapist impulse that gives rise to it. There is something too complicated about life for those seeking an avenue of escape. The better answer is not to escape but to simplify. If an individual life is too complicated to face, there are specific aspirations that are creating that complexity. Those aspirations are harder than they look or are unsustainable in some sense, so that approaching them becomes a problem of increasing complexity.

Picture a tree growing in a box. There is no problem with this when the tree is much smaller than the box, but as the roots extend into more than half of the volume of the box, the attempt to find space for new roots becomes a problem. Where is the undiscovered corner in which a new root can grow? It is this kind of problem that has people feeling frazzled. It is not the kind of problem that can be solved by careful thought, at least not if you keep yourself within the confines of the box. There is no solution without first realizing that you have been looking harder and harder in the wrong place.

In the new nostalgia trend, there isn’t much of an illusion that there is a policy prescription in the desire to escape to the recent past. It is more of a vague sense that something has gone wrong.

This suspicion is mostly correct. Often the thing that has gone wrong is that something that was thought to be inexpensive turned out to be expensive. As in past moments of collective nostalgia, I think we will find that is only the most privileged who are drawn for very long toward the past. For the rest of us, circumstances force us to recognize that there is a price to be paid or a decision to be made in the present.

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