This morning I found myself being nostalgic. These days I only have the little one to follow around playgroups on my days off. Back in the day, I had my oldest two close together and obviously had both of them in tow everywhere I went. “Wasn’t it great” I started to think “when I had two at home and used to make macaroni cheese for dinner”. That’s when I stopped myself in my tracks. Wait a minute! I don’t like cooking! And neither do the kids like macaroni cheese. Those days were not easy. In fact they were bloody hard. Perhaps the hormones are to blame after seeing too many cute little babies at the playgroup, but they were days I would certainly not wish to return to if I thought twice about it. So why the nostalgia?

To be nostalgic is to feel sentimental about the past, harking back to the “good old days”, particularly in times of change. I’m not a big Woody Allen fan, but the dangers of nostalgia are perfectly summed up by his 2011 film, “Midnight in Paris”. In case you haven’t had the joy of seeing it, a basic plot summary is as follows.

Owen Wilson plays a down to earth literary type (Gil) taking a trip to Paris with his stuck up girlfriend and her awful parents. Surprised that no-one wants to hear him whining about his struggle to write his first novel (coincidentally about nostalgia) he wanders off alone. At midnight (with the aid of champagne) he somehow stumbles across a portal which transports him back to the 1920s where he meets his literary heroes, who kindly offer to review his manuscript. Obviously he makes use of this over the next few nights, and really enjoys the party atmosphere of the roaring twenties, an era which he’s always felt a nostalgia for. Of course there’s a girl involved, who Gil meets in the 1920s and falls in love with. The crux of the matter is that she lives in 1920s but is actually nostalgic for the 1890s. Then (and this is where it gets complicated) Gil and the girl find a portal in the 1920s which takes them back to the 1890s, where the girl decides to stay. At this point Gil has a mini epiphany and quite rightly wonders why the girl would want to live in an age without antibiotics. The moral of the story being we need to appreciate the present more. Nostalgia is fine in itself, but we only feel that way about things because they’re past. We’d never want to permanently go back to the times we feel nostalgic about, because they were in fact pretty rubbish.

Unfortunately, unlike Gil, we can’t physically travel back in time to remind ourselves of that. Some people do have a pretty good go at recreating the past, like in the 1950s rockabilly community (see here). It becomes unhealthy when we get fixated on the past and the positives as we see it, which makes it very difficult for us to live in the present or move forward into the future.

In my first job, I used to love the stories my managers told me about what it was like to work in the same place when they had started work in the 1970s. They created a very vivid picture of men enjoying their job-for-life sat smoking at their desks while women tapped away on typewriters until they left to get married. It was quite an old fashioned type of public sector organisation which, fortunately, some modern management types were trying to haul into the twentieth century. Of course plenty of people were nostalgic for the past, but back then they were just left in a corner reading their newspaper surrounded by pot plants until it was time to retire.

While those workplaces are (thankfully) a thing of the past, nostalgia can still be a significant blockage to organisational change which, if anything, has become a lot more sophisticated than creating a wall of foliage around your desk. As Woody Allen pointed out, the best cure for that is a healthy dose of reality. So while I enjoyed the stories about the workplaces of 40 years ago, I certainly don’t feel nostalgic for a time where discrimination was par for the course and equal pay non-existent. However, I may cook up a batch of macaroni cheese every once in while, just for old time’s sake 🙂

What makes you feel nostalgic?

Photo credit: The Independent 

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