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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