The lessons of nostalgia

Even as a child, I had an odd penchant for nostalgia. Watching the TV travel show “Hawaii Calls,” I would get sadly nostalgic over a family trip to visit relatives in Hawaii, one that we had taken only months ago! When I became interested in history, I’d experience a yearning to return to the times and events that most fascinated me.

Okay, if you’ve read past the first paragraph, you’ve figured out that this post isn’t about work or workplaces per se, though for some people it may influence how they think about career planning, vocation, and avocation.

Charles D. Hayes, is a retired, largely self-educated writer and practical philosopher whose books and essays on finding meaning in life remain hidden classics. He recently posted to his September University blog a superb essay, “Nostalgia: Why the Past Matters” (link here), in which he makes the case for returning to and understanding our past in constructive ways, rather than with mere soggy sentiment.  A few snippets:

In seventeenth-century Europe, nostalgia was thought to be a treatable disease. It was an especially dreaded malady in military organizations during that period because it provided a plausible excuse for AWOL soldiers. While it is no longer considered an illness, nostalgia is often thought of today as an escape from reality. It is also associated with aging, and American demographics make nostalgia a topic that’s growing in importance.


Many of us, even in the fall and winter life, continue to be steered along a life course that began when we were much younger. We are still impelled to act by forces we do not yet recognize as being a part of our motivation. And thus our grasp on the illusive nature of free will is suspect, especially in light of recent research in neuroscience that has many scientists rethinking the whole philosophical premise of free will and the notion of authenticity.


For example, television family life with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson . . . in the 1950s gave the appearance of representing a much simpler and more innocent time when there was little mystery about the notion of right and wrong. . . . Knowing what I know now about the history of those days, it’s hard to appreciate what it might have been like if I had been aware that the Nelsons’ television family life was a façade, that Ozzie Nelson was something of a tyrant, and that the dysfunction in his family mirrored that of my own in some ways.


If the past represents the holy grail of our values, then getting to the bottom of our fondest memories is an effort vital to our aspirations as human beings. Nostalgia is a key to unlocking that which was once valuable and subconsciously still is. But even if what we value is still present and ubiquitous in popular culture, it is often obscured by the increasing complexity of everyday life.

With Hayes, you get a thoughtful mix of the personal and political. He eschews tagging himself with a political affiliation, but you’ll see that this former Marine, Texas police officer, and Alaska oil rigger has a lot of things to say that are at odds with any stereotypes one might draw from occupational and geographic labels.

Lessons of the ages

As one enters middle age, it’s natural to resist any mental associations with aging — and that resistance may extend to reading reflective advice for “older folks.”

However, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years is to welcome the wisdom of those who have been on this planet a little longer than me. Charles Hayes writes mainly for those we might call “seniors,” but his potentially larger audience includes anyone who wants to pursue a life of meaning and authenticity.

More from Charles Hayes

Hayes writes with a singularly wise, humane, and insightful voice, and his books and articles are light years beyond the piles of self-help junk that compete for our attention and dollars. Here’s how to read more of his stuff:

September University blog (from which this piece draws)

September University website (“Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life”)

Books by Charles HayesThe Wisdom of Maturity is my favorite.

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