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Misplaced Nostalgia

Published: at 08:12 PM

All nostalgia is misplaced. We are going forward in time at one second per second, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.

Nostalgia is also misplaced not just because it’s futile, but because it’s wrong. I don’t mean that it’s morally wrong. I mean that what we think we are longing for is rarely what we are actually missing.

I thought recently how it’s a shame that we no longer have milk men. There’s something we lost when we started buying our milk at the supermarket rather than having it placed on our doorstep by Mike, whose name we obviously know, but whose life we know as well.

Of course this is all wrong. First, in many places, you can still get milk delivered from a “real” milkman, even in places like the UK and the US. Absent that, if you live in a city (and often even if not), you’ve probably got several grocery delivery services, ready for you to place an order on your phone. But even if you do that, you don’t know your delivery driver’s name, do you? I don’t, and I don’t get the impression that he wants to stick around to give it to me, or to tell me how his kids are doing.

It’s because we don’t long for the milkmen, we long for the white picket fence, we long for the single income family, we long for the sense of community that “we” had in the past. Not you, of course. You weren’t alive during this time, and so you’re longing for a past you’re imagining through media.

Of course, there’s also nothing stopping anyone from recreating much of what we implicitly perceive life to have been like back then. At least, I’m not aware of any laws that have been passed in recent decades that prevent you from asking the delivery driver his name.

This misplaced nostalgia is the same with people who say they would have loved to live during the renaissance. No they wouldn’t! Statistically, these people would be peasants at best. They would not be hanging out discussing helicopters with da Vinci. I think most people have in their head that if they were in the past, they’d be in the upper class. And even if they were among the nobles, you know what? Life back then sucked. No air conditioning, no refrigerators, no blogs. Even those of you longing to be Daisy Buchanan would have started itching to come back within the first week. (Also, maybe re-read the book.)

This nostalgia can be a lot more recent, too. I miss the early Internet. Not because the Internet was better then. It was worse in many ways. But I was able to spend all day on it if I wanted, and I didn’t have any other major responsibilities. What I miss isn’t the early Internet, but my youth. It’s why the best music is the music that we listened to in college (which also explains why most popular Christmas songs are from the fifties). It’s also why a city’s peak is always how it was in your early twenties (or right after you moved there if you arrived later). My friend Megan told me that in her studies, she came across a book that described how youth lamented that their neighborhood Starbucks was no longer there.

I know I’m not saying anything new here. “Rose-colored glasses” is a saying for a reason. But it’s good to be reminded of it, not in order to take off those glasses, but to remember that generally the things you long for are things you can have right now.