Remembering the good old days: How the past informs the future


By Timothy Walch

Spring has arrived with a sense of hope for better days. We’re still isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but now we have a vaccine! Some Catholics have returned to church to celebrate Mass in person, but many — perhaps most of us — will wait until we’ve been vaccinated. Even the most cautious parishioners look forward to celebrating Mass together! Unfortunately, all this isolation has made us nostalgic for the past.


Call it a coping mechanism. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Norberg provided startling evidence of our longing for what has gone before. “When asked if life in their country is better or worse today than 50 years ago,” he writes, “31% of Britons, 41% of Americans, and 46% of French say it’s worse.”

Do these figures seem high to you? Not to worry — psychologists will tell you that nostalgia is a natural, comforting element of mental health. The past is stable and predictable; it provides us with a frame and a focus during “unprecedented times” such as those we experienced in 2020.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of our yearning to return to the past is the fact that each generation clings to a different decade. In fact, each generation remembers the days of its youth as the best years of its life. Our memories tell us that these were good times, bright with hope.

So, it will come as no surprise that the 1950s are most often cited as the happiest of times. These were the years when most of the baby boomers were young. Millions of these aging Americans get nostalgic about the Mickey Mouse Club, summer camp, Kool-Aid, and riding bikes. Few of these boomers have any memories of the Cold War, racial injustice or McCarthyism.

But the parents of these boomers didn’t cling to the 1950s; in fact, among these adults there was widespread apprehension about nuclear war. Not a few homes in the suburbs had shelters stocked with essential supplies in case the country came under attack. The parents of the 1950s remembered the 1920s as the good old days — an era of full employment, going to the movies and Sunday rides in the family automobile.

Why is clinging to the past so common? “One possibility,” notes Norberg, “is that we know we have survived past dangers — otherwise we wouldn’t be here — so in retrospect [problems] seem smaller.” We overcame adversity back then so we have confidence that we can do it again.

Our nostalgia is also tied to what we learn in our youth. Research has shown that we store more memories during our youth than at any other time in our lives. And as we age, we find those early memories more vivid and positive. Is it any surprise that boomers made a hit of the television show, “Happy Days”?

So, it’s safe to say that nostalgia is a natural and normal element of aging, but there’s a cautionary tale in Norberg’s commentary. The past is not as idyllic as we remember it and we need not fear that the future will be dystopian. With patience, prayer and vaccine, we can be back together by Christmas.

(Timothy Walch is a lay director of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the board of directors of The Catholic Messenger.)

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