How we can draw from the past for a better future

It seems that with everything we touch these days— everything we see, everything we hear, everything we read— we would do well to remember lessons of the past. As a strategic communications and leadership advisor, Detroit’s Scott Monty preaches that professionally, we can learn from other people’s past successes, and past mistakes. This piece is adapted from his blog, the Timeless & Timely newsletter, where it first appeared on December 9th.

“We are all sensitive to the splendors of beginnings, to the rare quality of those moments when the present is freed from the past without as yet letting anything shine through of the future that sets it into motion.” — French anthropologist Marc Augé, 2004

Nostalgia is something of a false prophet. It feeds us powerful visions: memories of a glorious experience of the past— something that makes us long to relive it, like a first visit to a favorite location or a first viewing of a classic film.

Yet we can never reclaim it.

Miranda by John William Waterhouse, 1875 (public domain – Wikimedia Commons).

In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Miranda is the daughter of Prospero. She was banished to an island at the age of three, along with her father, where they lived for over a decade with only their only company their slave, Caliban. Miranda is blissfully unaware of the evils of the larger world and is openly compassionate.

Therein lies the deceptive power of nostalgia. It’s able to create a deep and meaningful feeling within us, but it’s not the same as delivering an experience.

Especially now, at the holidays, when our playful memories serve up visions of sugarplums, snow angels, and laughter around the fireplace.

But it isn’t quite powerful enough to inoculate us from the cold reality of recycled fruitcake, scraping ice off of windshields, and the rising voices of family squabbles…. let alone the pandemic.

Why do we go on pining for the romance of the past?

Scott Monty

Nostalgia is defined as “a wistful yearning for a return to some past period or irrecoverable condition.”

It’s a feeling that wraps around us like a favorite sweater or a particularly enjoyable food from our childhood. The result is a sense of warmth and comfort (hence the term “comfort food”).

Incidentally, comfort foods don’t contain any magic elixir or healing properties; it’s the very memory of them that acts as a gentle salve for our troubled minds. They bring us a sense of belonging.

And really, isn’t that just what anyone wants? To belong?

Whether it’s a friend, family member, or someone you work with, we all want to feel as if we’ve found the proper place in the world, that we’re useful to others, and that we’re appreciated.

When we wax nostalgic, we call to mind “the good old days,” or that “romantic chamber of the heart” that Vincent Starrett referred to above.

We long for those days when things were simpler, when challengers were fewer, and it was easier to discern between right and wrong.

Consider Facebook’s initial stated intent of making the world a more connected place, or Google’s pledge to not be evil. Without foreknowledge of the complex world and competing human desires into which technology thrust itself, these platitudes are nostalgic.

Yet we can never reclaim them. We can’t unring the bell.

You might even wonder if things ever were that unfettered.

The unspoken promise of the Make America Great Again message is to return America to a better, simpler time; to some, that means the 1950s, when suburban America was growing, kids were home and at the dinner table at 5:00 pm (which of course the housewife prepared), and life was like an episode of Leave It To Beaver.

That’s nostalgia.

The reality though? Women didn’t have as many choices in terms of careers, were underpaid (and still are), and were victims of sexual harassment that could never be admitted in polite company.

The Civil Rights Act hadn’t yet been passed, and Black Americans had to fight to eat at the same lunch counters, struggled to be able to vote as easily as everyone else (and still do), and sue their way to be able to attend a local school.

“And the time and place and all the great events are near and dear to us not because our memories call them forth in pure nostalgia, but because they are a part of us today.”
— Archivist Edgar W. Smith, 1946

One form of nostalgia is the classic mantra “We’ve Always Done It That Way.” Defensive long-term employees of some companies (those with an institutional memory— which itself isn’t a negative) flex their WADITW muscle not by virtue of seniority, but as an autonomous response to avoid change.

But progress and nostalgia are diametric opposites.

Progress pushes us forward, sometimes into cold and unfamiliar territory, where we make decisions we’re not comfortable with. We may eventually find our footing, but those first steps can be scary.

Conversely, nostalgia keeps us rooted in the past. It tethers us to the familiarity and comfort that actions, repeated by rote, bring us over time. The danger is we might be mindlessly moored to ideas and practices, without considering alternatives.

There’s nothing wrong with evoking nostalgia; many of the retro themes or vintage products we see today draw on our collective memories of experiences past.

Even Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by nostalgia in the form of the Ghost of Christmas Past, which brought him back to his childhood. For a while, he enjoyed it: happy scenes like his beloved sister Fan, a Christmas party hosted by his former boss, Mr. Fezziwig, who treated him like a son, and his fiancée Belle.

But when the ghost showed him a scene of Belle ending their relationship because she couldn’t be with a man who loved money more than her, the reality was too much for Scrooge:

“Spirit.” said Scrooge in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”

“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me.”

“Remove me.” Scrooge exclaimed, “I cannot bear it.

Scrooge Extinguishes the First of Three Spirits by John Leech, 1843
(Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham)

Marc Auge wrote, “Tell me what you forget and I will tell you who you are.” When we gloss over our past or even introduce a romantic, nostalgic element to it, we do a disservice to ourselves and to others.

When we share stories of our past, it’s perfectly acceptable to yearn for them again. At the same time, we might yearn for a better future by learning from our past.

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