Why we should not take our par­ents’ and grand­par­ents’ nos­tal­gia too seri­ous­ly and how the past can help us deal with social changes.  

The phrase “Every­thing was bet­ter in the past!” is one that all of us, with cer­tain­ty, have heard at lat­est at fam­i­ly gath­er­ings – and per­haps, one that we have sym­pa­thised our­selves with before. But what is this “past” that all ‘boomers’ are con­stant­ly talk­ing about? Are we talk­ing about a time 50 or 100 years ago or does this phrase reach back even fur­ther? It has nev­er been prop­er­ly dat­ed. But that’s not even nec­es­sary. As a mat­ter of fact, this oh-so-pop­u­lar phrase is rather to be regard­ed as a symp­tom of a gen­er­al phenomenon. 

The world was always going to end 

Indeed, the fear of “moral decay” or “decline in val­ues” is a con­cept that has not only been found in peo­ples’ heads as of recent. Accord­ing to social ethi­cist Prof. Dr. Markus Vogt, these neg­a­tive per­cep­tions of val­ue debate have already been addressed and the­ma­tised in ancient times. Vogt explains that the nos­tal­gia for ‘old’ moral prin­ci­ples seems to have per­vad­ed through­out his­to­ry due to the con­tin­u­ous, nec­es­sary evolv­ing of soci­ety, which, in itself, is a good thing. 

How­ev­er, often, this devel­op­ment is regard­ed as rather over­whelm­ing espe­cial­ly by old­er gen­er­a­tions. The famil­iar and known – the ‘tried and test­ed’ – and there­fore, par­tial­ly also the ques­tion­ing of the most per­son­al and deep­est dog­mas are tied to men­tal efforts that a lot of peo­ple want to resist. There­fore, it is much eas­i­er to get lost in ones’ own nos­tal­gia and flee from chang­ing life cir­cum­stances. The ques­tion is whether those fears of old­er gen­er­a­tions are eli­gi­ble and whether there actu­al­ly is some­thing to the phrase: Every­thing was bet­ter in the past? Of course, the answer is no.

Not everything is bad 

What used to be the norm, is very often viewed in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent light nowa­days, which can be regard­ed as soci­etal progress. Not only moral beliefs are con­stant­ly being ques­tioned and re-eval­u­at­ed but also taboo-top­ics of the last decades and cen­turies are inces­sant­ly receiv­ing more atten­tion. The top­ics of deal­ing with our men­tal health con­sti­tutes a great exam­ple as it was as short as 100 years ago that “racial hygiene” was dis­cussed at psy­chi­atric facil­i­ties, where­as now we are talk­ing open­ly and more con­struc­tive­ly about diverse top­ics sur­round­ing our men­tal health. The increas­ing rel­e­van­cy of social media and glob­al exchange sup­ports the cre­ation of a more col­lec­tive social awareness. 

Speeding at 200 km/h towards progress 

The change of mod­ern soci­ety, how­ev­er, can be quite stag­ger­ing because even though the for­mer men­tioned devel­op­ment of new val­ues is nor­mal and has always been hap­pen­ing, Prof. Dr. Vogt empha­sis­es the influ­ence of intense­ly rapid tech­ni­cal and eco­nom­ic progress. This pos­es an extreme recess into our cur­rent dai­ly life and brings, accord­ing to Vogt, a cer­tain free­dom which requires a lot of men­tal respon­si­bil­i­ty on a moral lev­el. With­in the frames of glob­al­i­sa­tion and mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the 21st cen­tu­ry, we are con­stant­ly con­front­ed with an increas­ing num­ber of social top­ics and need to take stance on more and more per­son­al top­ics. We are fac­ing socio-moral deci­sions as soon as our week­ly gro­cery shop­ping where we need to decide between sus­tain­able, healthy and afford­able. With­out a doubt, the cre­ation of an “aware­ness” con­cern­ing rel­e­vant social top­ics is right and impor­tant. Admit­ted­ly, the bear­ing of such per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty and the pres­sure to par­tic­i­pate with­in all those debates can be exhaust­ing. Addi­tion­al­ly, the increas­ing impor­tance of social media that most of us have unques­tion­ably got­ten used to, still com­plete­ly changes our ways of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and for­ti­fies social pres­sure like nev­er before. Even though a great part of many peo­ples’ lives is most­ly hap­pen­ing online, almost exclu­sive­ly vir­tu­al. Between tak­ing care of the per­son­al Insta­gram pro­file, cir­cling back and forth between a few apps and the pres­sure to self-opti­mise (per­son­al­ly, phys­i­cal, pro­fes­sion­al­ly and health-wise) there is bare­ly any space or time left to focus on our­selves and our sur­round­ings. This is exact­ly when these past times come in handy. 

The balance between progression and regression 

A trip down mem­o­ry lane to past days can bring along a cer­tain feel­ing of decel­er­a­tion which we are quite often miss­ing in our cur­rent dai­ly lives  Reviv­ing the tra­di­tion­al cof­fee par­ty on Sun­day, swap­ping your iPhone to an ana­logue cam­era for the next trip or just active­ly focus­ing on the film on the big screen at the cin­e­ma is prob­a­bly more cathar­tic to body and soul than three hours of con­stant swip­ing through Tik­Tok before going to sleep. The return to old prac­tices and tra­di­tions of bygone days can enable an escape from the omnipresent tech­ni­cal evo­lu­tion, from pro­fes­sion­al and social pres­sure and the gen­er­al con­cern about the future from time to time. Addi­tion­al­ly, it allows a men­tal coun­ter­act of the rapid pro­gres­sion of our times. 

In con­clu­sion, we can put on record that, indeed, in the past every­thing was dif­fer­ent. Our soci­ety in gen­er­al, the way that we are liv­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each oth­er is con­stant­ly chang­ing and evolv­ing. In many aspects, this is some­thing pos­i­tive. How­ev­er, it should be allowed for all of us to escape moder­ni­ty and its pro­gres­sion every now and then — to acti­vate air­plane mode and dis­tance our­selves from the mas­sive respon­si­bil­i­ty of being a “mod­ern human-being”. Nev­er­the­less, we, as indi­vid­u­als and parts of soci­ety, should con­sis­tent­ly, open­ly and objec­tive­ly reflect about the rela­tion of present and past times — in order to be able to judge which tra­di­tions are worth keep­ing and what past expe­ri­ences we can and should gain knowl­edge from. 

Author: Ria Michel 

Trans­la­tion: Mar­lene Nötzold 

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