What is it that leads people to be nostalgic? I was born in the town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and when I was born the town itself was a vibrant industrial suburb of Pittsburgh with factories full of steelworkers. Soon after my birth the mills closed down and McKeesport became a different town, a shell of what it used to be. This is by no means a unique situation, as it is a story that can be repeated over and over again through the towns of the rustbelt, an area that used to be grimy with the pollution from smokestacks pouring their waste into the air and water, but with the knowledge that work was being done there, and that products were being produced that were appreciated by customers and that led to good jobs and decent lives for many millions of blue collar workers all over the United States. In the aftermath of decades of economic downturns, chronic unemployment, and a total lack of opportunity it is easy for people to feel nostalgic about the days of the past when they worked and were respected and honored instead of being the subject of intense scorn from the corrupt leftist talking heads that fill the airwaves. Perhaps such nostalgia is misplaced or inaccurate, but it is something that can be easily understood.
I remember as a senior in high school helping out with an activity called Sugar Shak in honor of a long-forgotten novelty hit from five and a half decades ago. While I was there I ended up helping out a group of local children with a girl who happened to be a sophomore and a color guard, who I later saw as a date at our senior prom. For whatever reason I was in a particularly reflective mood that day and pondered if that girl would feel nostalgic about her high school experience. Would anything in her life give her the same degree of honor and respect and attention as she would get as a friendly and lovely high school student once she went into the larger world? I don’t know if she did. Certainly even for someone as disinclined to be nostalgic as I am high school was one of the few times I was ever greatly popular with any sizable group of people, namely those responsible for ensuring the geographic diversity and excellence in standardized test scores for their entering freshmen. As my mother and stepfather can attest to, I was almost literally submerged by college mail from universities all over the world who wanted me to go to their programs. From the age of fifteen I had to seriously consider whether I wanted to finish high school at all or do an early start into college, and I decided that it would be worthwhile from the perspective of emotional maturity alone. For someone as socially awkward as I have spent much of my life being, it was very gratifying to be wanted, and that is something that anyone can feel nostalgic about, even such a man as myself.
It was in reading the novels of Lois McMaster Bujold  that I was given a term for my general sense of horror and loathing of the past–negative nostalgia. It is the shadow of nostalgia, for while nostalgia tends to exaggerate the good parts of the past and paint a mixed experience as something that was a good time that we should return to, negative nostalgia paints a mixed experience as a horror that cannot be repeated again. One gets the feeling that many aggrieved people in life, people who brood over injustices done to their ancestors, have a feeling of negative nostalgia when they look at history. An Irishman brooding over centuries of English oppression and the horrors of the great famine is unlikely to view with any degree of equanimity the greatness and partial good of the British Empire. Neither is the descendant of slaves likely to view slaveowning founding Fathers of the United States with a great degree of favor. This is lamentable but understandable. It is easy to take complicated people and view them in light of the thing about them that horrifies us to the core. Certainly I have done that in my own mind with those who happened to have particular personal sins that were a direct offense to me because of my own background and experiences. It requires a superhuman degree of empathy and understanding to recognize both the best and the worst about others and to want nothing to do with their sins but also to be able to give the proper honor and respect that they are due.
I cannot help but think that so much of the lamentable division within our contemporary world is the result of a false dilemma between nostalgia and negative nostalgia. Every age of human history has had its own distinct blend of good and evil simply because there is an unequal and distinct quantity and type of good and evil within the hearts of every people. Every age had sins that it sought hard to eradicate or at least drive underground, and every age had sins that it tolerated and even celebrated. Our age is certainly no different in this regard from any other age, even if the sins we condemn and the sins we celebrate are distinct from most of human history. To the extent that we blind ourselves to the sins of those who came before us we seek to repeat the same errors of the past without having learned anything. To the extent that we see only the sins and not the virtues of those who came before, we will reject the virtues that people had simply because they had great sins that offend us deeply. This is unjust, because to the extent that we do not acquire the virtues that we see in historical figures, we will create and encourage injustices and evils that will lead others to treat us in retrospect as we treat the great sinners of the past. We may abhor the injustice of antebellum slaveowners or find their touchy and delicate sense of honor to be distressing, but we ought not to be blind to their courage and hospitality, nor blind to the flaws that their touchy defense of an unjust social system led to. We may find ourselves more like them than we realize if we fail to respect them as flawed human beings, however distinct their flaws from our own.
It is hard not to see that a lot of our intense divides could be resolved with a great deal of empathy that is plainly lacking. As human beings, many of us (and this is certainly true of me) are very prickly about our sense of personal dignity. Those people who embarrass us and attack us do not get the milk of human kindness from us, but rather get a heaping portion of contempt and hostility. There are many wounded people walking around this world poking and slashing at others because of the pain of their own wounds. Most of the people being poked and slashed are innocent, at least of wounding us, and in turn they poke and slash at other relative innocents. So the cycle of pain and misery continues day after day, year after year, generation after generation, with no one deciding that the pain will stop with them and that they will restrain from inflicting upon others the suffering that they have dealt with. Until we can restrain ourselves from attacking the dignity of others, from inflicting them with the horrors that we cannot bear, and from dragging up the past as a source of endless resentment against others in the present, we will continue to have the situation we have now. No one wants that. Since we have so many national and even global sins that we have to repent of if we are to avoid divine judgment, why not start with resentment? Do we want to live forever in the same repeating horrors without end and to spread that dark vision to others?
 See, for example: