Nearly all the model railroaders I know fell into the hobby through nostalgia’s portal; a boy, waiting for his father on a station platform each evening, searching for the familiar, weary face among a crowd of identical commuter overcoats and fedoras; a five-year old sits proudly at the controls of a Lionel train layout, her father gently guiding her as she runs a locomotive across the tracks. For these hobbyists, model railroading is the touchstone for poignant childhood memories.
Although the term “nostalgia” today implies the recall of happy memories and simpler times, it was first used in 1770 by the Swiss scholar Johannes Hofer, who defined it as “severe homesickness considered as a disease.” https://www.etymonline.com/word/nostalgia.
Hindsight isn’t always 20/20; our childhood memories are often hazy, clouded by our natal drive for security and love. My parents were neither saints nor sinners; while I have many fond memories of time spent with my father, I now recognize that his inability to provide me with a sense of safety and protection coated my childhood with anxiety and gravity. Despite this burden, I grew to love him unconditionally, my glassful of memories neither half-empty nor half-full.
Our parents’ nostalgia for the past renders us one generation further removed from historical clarity. Marrying later than most (Mom at 33; Dad at 39) they still had five children; my friends’ parents were a generation younger than mine. A decade after my parents’ fathers returned from the First World War, the Great Depression cast their childhoods in worry and hardship. Yet, whenever they spoke of this time, my parents shared mostly stories of thrift, hard work and a sense of community; their survival blurring the accuracy of their memories, along with my ability to truly understand and appreciate the impact of their experiences.
The chronic tension between past realities and nostalgia’s distortions drew me to the study of history, a discipline of assessing facts and evidence to explore and resolve conflicting interpretations of “what really happened and why.” Examining one’s personal history by reconciling our childhood memories and biases with the facts and evidence of our parents’ unique circumstances, particularly the challenges they faced and burdens they carried at the time, can grant us understanding and peace of mind as adults. Sadly, nostalgia often clouds our perspectives with wishes or myths, undermining our ability to clearly discern the facts and evidence. We protect ourselves (and our parents) with distorted memories, choosing to evade or ignore the unvarnished truth of what really happened, and why.
Today politicians across the globe speak of “simpler times” when nations were isolationist and protectionist, and therefore somehow safer and more prosperous. Today, they say, is so much worse than the past because we’ve allowed the rest of the world to “use” us through excess immigration, foreign aid and welfare. Historians know that there was never a time in human history when things were great—at least not for the vast majority of people. Historical accounts of the rise and fall of civilizations long gone reveal more complex causes; yet a consistent theme in these narratives is the human willingness to buy simple explanations that point consistently to both external and internal enemies, all under the nostalgic appeal of returning to “simpler times.” Those in pursuit of power have used these same tools across the centuries, with repeatedly disastrous results.
After a tragedy, people say, “we will never forget.” Yet who can remember what they did not themselves experience? As the years, decades, and centuries pass, the veil of nostalgia becomes increasingly opaque, obscuring the facts, rendering our minds increasingly malleable to misinterpretation and myth, and to versions of events twisted by the greedy and powerful. When we lose touch with our own history—when we refuse to question; to ask for and examine the evidence to determine for ourselves what actually happened at the time, we willingly surrender our ability—our right—to discern truth from lies, right from wrong, left from right, and up from down, allowing others to tell us what think and what to believe. Perhaps Johannes Hofer was right after all; nostalgia may be a disease; perhaps a fatal one.