The old ways are over

PHOTO: Andrew Malone, Flickr-CC-BY

Everybody gets a little older each day. String a few days together and you get a lot older. As I begin my trot through middle age I’m breaking all sorts of promises I once made to myself.

“Who cares about watching birds?” 

Well, now I do. I love birds. Can’t get enough birds. 

“Don’t talk about how fast the kids grow up. That’s super annoying.”

This might be true when the kids are still pooping their drawers. But now I’m watching with dread as the sands of childhood pass through a deceptively small hourglass. We’re taking senior pictures this summer. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even real, but then I look in a mirror and see that it’s all too real.

As all the people I know grow older, I see new patterns forming. Some of these trends come with age, others seem products of our times. One dominant thread is an incessant obsession with nostalgia. 

Online, this takes the form of jokes and memes declaring something new to be inferior to something that is old. 

Take technology, for instance. Cassette tapes, objectively among the absolute worst forms of audio recording, seem to be enjoying a resurgence. I’ve listened to digital music for 20 years now. Best part? I haven’t had to fish fragile plastic tape out of the guts of a car stereo since the Clinton Administration. 

Another popular reverie is to ask, “Do you remember when no one had phones?” Yes, but do you remember staring glassy eyed out the window of the geometry classroom for 45 minutes? I remember that, too.

I also notice a strange reverence for vice-ridden parents and kids not wearing seatbelts. These statements infer that the reason we’re all alive today is because our parents smoked heaters and let us roll around in the bed of a moving pickup. To remind: correlation does not equal causation.

I’m as prone to nostalgia as anyone. But the etymology of the word “nostalgia” isn’t what most people think. One literal translation reads “return to suffering.” But what it really means it to feel the pain of remembering a time in our lives that is gone forever. 

That’s why I’m developing a personal rule for jokes, memes and general comments surrounding nostalgia. It’s healthy to revisit happy memories. And sometimes new things are preposterous; that has always been true. But I seek to avoid humor that ends on this unspoken reaction: “Ha ha ha! The old ways were better.”

If something you see online is designed to make you say to yourself, “Ha ha ha! The old ways were better,” you suffer from the nostalgia disease. Detoxify yourself. Consume something new. It’s good for you.

Historians Joanne Freeman and Heather Cox Richardson host a podcast called “Now and Then” connecting contemporary events to history. In a June 14 episode, Freeman and Richardson discussed the phenomenon of nostalgia and its relationship with political power. Quite often, we are sold a notion of the past that isn’t accurate, but serves a very specific contemporary political purpose. 

At times when we feel weak, we imagine the strength of our ancestors. When we sense chaos, we imagine a past stability that was probably only true if you were too young to see the whole picture. Politicians know this. So do advertisers. They use this power to control our attitudes and actions.

In her concluding statement to the podcast episode about nostalgia, Freeman described what a healthy relationship with nostalgia might look like.

“Yes, you can look back to pick a moment in the past and shine it up and make it all polished and wonderful and be nostalgic for it,” said Freeman. “It’s possible to be nostalgic for parts of the past and not for others. It’s possible to look back and see certain things as good and worth remembering and that had merit while readily acknowledging that there were many, many other things that didn’t and need to be remembered alongside the things that we might feel positively toward.”

The canned reverence for the 1950s found in “Grease” and “Happy Days” might just be good, clean fun, but not if it holds us back.

“Nostalgia can be complex,” continued Freeman. “It can have subtleties. It doesn’t have to be polished and shiny. And I think we’re at a moment particularly, given that things feel so unsettled, there isn’t a lot of subtly.

“But it doesn’t have to be used that way,” she continued. “You don’t have to throw out the past entirely as being unconnected and you don’t have to swallow it entirely either. Nostalgia is a way of thinking about the past and you can do that I think in an intelligent way allowing the complexity of the past to be present in full.”

Watching the cool kids from my high school post memes about “the kids these days” is a wake up call. Professor Freeman’s comments hit home. 

I love history, but I’m careful with nostalgia. A little dab will do. Smile. Move on. What’s happening now is so much more important.

The old ways inform us. We learn from their patterns and gain deeper understanding of human nature. But going forward there are no old ways. All the ways are new. We may gravel and grade this fresh road or sink into the mud. This choice dwells within the present. It always has.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, August 21, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. If we can’t wax nostalgic we end up talking about the pills we take and the surgeries we’ve had.

  2. Marcia Brown says

    Very insightful column and required reading for those of us over thirty!

  3. Kathleen Jokela says

    “There is no such thing as the past.
    Only the stories we tell about it.”

  4. Kathleen Jokela says

    Are you familiar with the word,”saudades “? It is Portuguese and means “nostalgia for something that never was”.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this too. Was music in the 70’s and 80’s actually better? What was it about those ubiquitous yellow phones? Did there used to be more crickets?

    Meanwhile, a parallel development: Global material footprint (a measure of total weight of all the stuff humans consume each year) was around 14 billion tons per year in 1945, 35 billion tons per year in 1980, and 92 billion tons per year in 2016, with most consumption driven by high-income nations, the US in particular. Obviously some of that expansion is good and necessary, especially in low income nations, but scientists estimate 50 billion tons per year as a maximum safe boundary. In other words, growth has accelerated, almost definitely beyond limits. (figures from J. Hickel, Less is More, p 102).

    The “kids these days” stuff isn’t helpful, I agree. They’re reacting to an entirely new set of rules, for one thing. But if part of nostalgia is a gut sense that something about the new way we consume is out of whack, that part that seems worthwhile to engage.

    • Meanwhile, in bizarro world, Elon Musk is ranting that we need to increase population in order to sell more stuff. I guess if your main product sells for twice what it’s worth, leads the industry in breakdowns, and has lethal design flaws you need to hope that there actually is a sucker born every minute.

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