An Elegy for Nostalgia

I’m not an old man, yet I still find myself slipping into the golden moments of my past. Smells, locations but most frequently songs will transport me instantly to cherished memories with an intensity that is overwhelming. Interestingly the memories, always seem to end in the bittersweet feeling of missing those simpler times, “when things were better”. Nostalgia.

But were things actually better? Rarely. The nod to the past is less an accurate commentary on the actual events of the past as much as it is a desire to escape the complicated and emotionally-wrenching present. While nostalgia on an individual level is rarely harmful, other than annoying persons who were somehow precluded them from the “privilege” of living those times, on an institutional level, it can be deadly.

The nod to the past is less an accurate commentary on the actual events of the past as much as it is a desire to escape the complicated and emotionally-wrenching present

Institutions whatever they may be are the sum total of the individuals which form the institution, however the challenges that institutions face are far greater than the sum of the woe’s of the individuals that they employ. In fact that is why we form organizations, because we acknowledge that certain categories of problems can only be solved when acting in concert rather than as individuals. This means that when institutions indulge in nostalgia, the result is not merely annoying but catastrophic because they stop institutions from being fully rooted in the present, which is ultimately the only moment they can do something about.

Whiffs of institutional nostalgia can be seen wherever one looks, from the Church being in denial of the pluralistic nature of current society, to gender relations at the workplace, from parents struggling to raise their children in technologically saturated times to race issues in communities. These mental blocks result in trying to apply outdated paradigms to modern situations, with disastrous effects, both for the institutions themselves and the communities they seek to serve.

When institutions indulge in nostalgia, the result is not merely annoying but catastrophic

Is there no place for history, experience or tradition I hear you say? Of course there is. Insofar that they are subservient to the exigencies of the present situation. Arguments whose central premise seem to rely solely on the experience, position or history of the person sustaining the argument are not appropriate use of experience, history and tradition. Experience, history and tradition provide value when they serve to enrich the tool-set that is at our disposition to deal with the present, not when they are used to take an emotional interlude from the intricacies we are presently facing.

But what can we do when the institutions we work in engage in nostalgia?

Firstly, be aware of it. Nostalgia rarely happens in a vacuum, but is frequently resorted to on the cusp of change. Change which most generally will cause discomfort and pain to all or some within the institution. Respecting that pain is the key to engaging in dialogue with the members of the institution who have unfortunately been most carried away by the organizational reminiscing.

Nostalgia rarely happens in a vacuum, but is frequently resorted to on the cusp of change

Secondly and this advice serves most to younger, zealous individuals who are generally (but not always) on the side of change. Respectfully and gently try and help those who have a bad case of nostalgia by facilitating the change, through patience, tact and by reducing the “pain”, whatever it may be. Change takes time, and it is naive and disrespectful to expect change to occur overnight.

Finally we must ensure that despite our high-minded opinion of our own clarity of thinking, it is not us who is stuck in the sweet past. Being open and engaging with those who would seek to challenge our thoughts, ideas and paradigms rather than avoid or shun them becomes therefore essential to avoid escaping into the past.

Andrew is the founder and coordinator of STEPS (Seeking Together to Enhance our Potential through Service). STEPS is an organisation that provides formation and training to volunteers. For further details visit https://www.facebook.com/stepsprojectmosta/.

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