by Bill Droel
After about 35 years of weekly gatherings, the members of my spiritual support group are now all retired. At our age we tend to recall the long gone car companies, the discontinued breweries and the great athletes of yesteryear. However, our group concludes that nostalgia is a temptation, that escapism is a distraction.
What applies to individuals is also true for our society. There is far and away too much energy given to inaccurate comparisons with a so-called golden age. There is unhealthy nostalgia overcoming social groups. It is a disease that short circuits correct analysis of situations and that often advocates counter-productive solutions. It proceeds like this: First, social nostalgia sees the current scene as one of decline. Then it imagines a golden age. Next, it picks out one factor associated with the golden age and campaigns for its restoration. The assumption is that one restored symbol from the past will usher back most of the fonder time.
For example, a faction within a parish decides that Christianity is losing out to secularism. It imagines a golden age. Then the faction picks out the Latin Mass as something that will restore calmness and stability. There is nothing wrong per se when a parish offers an occasional Latin Mass option or has a monthly Marian procession or any number of other old-time devotions. But none of these will inaugurate a golden age, which to be truthful never existed anyway. I was there; it was ok back then, but not golden.
Political leaders are harkening to a golden age, writes Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic (Basic Books, 2016). These leaders—explicitly or subtly—first sow seeds of discontent. They then evoke “recollections of a lost ideal,” of a time before today’s decline. For the Democrats the ideal time was about 1965; for Republicans it was 1981. These leaders then use small pieces of history to suggest a restoration of peace and prosperity. Though presented differently, the narrative comes from both left and right. “Once upon a time,” the story begins. Once upon a time there were plentiful manufacturing jobs, prosperity from mining and steel, domestic security because immigrants were quickly homogenized, international supremacy because our president talked tough, respect for law and order. Oh yes, once upon a time.
Look, says Levin, this so-called golden era “was not the paradise that some now suggest.” Far too much verbiage is given to recovering the strengths of the post-World War II era. Of course we can derive some pertinent ideas from the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the administration of Ronald Reagan. But why focus on “how we can recover the capital we have used up” when the real challenge is “how we can build economic, cultural and social capital in the 21st century”?
In one’s spiritual life it is best not to ruminate about what might have been. Make an act of contrition and then act on the possibilities that await. In our political life it is better to quit dreaming about industries that will never return, about a world that preceded September 11, 2001, about Lake Wobegone’s seemingly wholesome culture. It is better to give thanks for the achievements of today’s society and to creatively act for more improvements.
By the way, I don’t remember any distinctive taste to Carling Black Label or to Falstaff nor do I remember ever riding in a Hudson or Packard. I did see Dick Allen play with the White Sox, after his years with the Phillies. I remember a great hitter who should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter on faith and work.