A Yearning for the Past

The dark hair of a twenty-year-old female college student gleamed against her long-sleeved white shirt. Her rounded collar denied even the possibility of cleavage. Her denim skirt fell well below the knees and she wore stockings with her sneakers.  She complained that her matchmaker thought she was too picky. If I had met this woman in a Jewish orthodox neighborhood this encounter might have made sense. Instead, I met Tzipora (formerly Jennifer) in my private practice in a Manhattan neighborhood where even the dogs wear tank tops. As I heard her lament about her preference for Chassidish men, I had to acknowledge that this previously secular woman now devoting herself to Orthodox Judaism was not the first such character to wander into my office of late.  Deepening religious observance is but one manifestation of people’s attempts to tune their behavior to a different historical note. The evocation of the past seems to be a critique of American materialism, an analysis useful in understanding individuals as well as our nation’s current political turbulence.

In addition to those people who are seeking more traditional relationships to religion, some look for older relationships to land and food through CSA’s. Contra-dancing, dress codes and uniforms are making a comeback. Many wonder whether or not the baby was thrown out with the bathwater in the pursuit of social and economic freedom. Has the inspiration toward liberty become polluted with the excesses of greed? Were there some aspects of the way people used to live that have value today?

When it comes to free thinking, nothing nurtures it more than an unstructured romp in the woods. When it comes to creativity nothing inspires it more than the chance to delve into a passionate interest without expectation. When it comes to mental health, nothing supports it more than the chance to connect, know and develop one’s authentic voice without being forced to conform to the depiction of reality on a TV or computer screen. More and more, I hear individuals longing for these experiences and find that the lack of them is implicated in people’s psychological difficulties.

A depressed adolescent male finished reading The Great Gatsby and wondered, “I feel like I am living in the wrong era, and I have been sad ever since.  Somehow it conjured up an image of a life that I missed, that I will never know, that I am too late for everything real. Things seem so over.”

An anxious woman with preadolescent children said, “I read the Anne of Green Gables series with my daughter, and immediately I started to worry. My kids have never played all day through to twilight in an open field creating imaginary names for forest creatures. They rarely know the longevity of innocent friendship. Everything has always been about producing, accomplishing, or safety. Am I anxious or anguished about something our society has lost that I don’t know how to get back? ”

When I used the term “sexual revolution” with a teenage boy with whom I work, he laughed. In this day and age of hook up sexuality, technological relationalism and obliterative drinking, the term seemed absurd.  Indeed, most people under fifty have few memories of a more repressive sociocultural system, and very little sense of its consequences. Instead, while some people enjoy and thrive off the culture of excess and all of its liberating as well as hedonistic benefits, others feel lost and destabilized.  It occurs to me that the diagnosis of bipolar disorder has increased incrementally with the our culture’s increased reliance on technology.  For some temperaments this works just fine. For others it is overwhelming. Of those who find it overwhelming, there seems to be a downright healthy trend, or a movement even, of reclaiming the past. It seems that some aspects of more traditional lifestyles may have been good for people.  This doesn’t explain the formation of tea parties at the political level. It might, however, help us understand why some surprising people find affiliating with the Tea Party Movement appealing. Rather than judging, diagnosing or dismissing some of these people, psychological thinking can help support the development of their latent leadership potential.

Sometimes conservatives, or people who seek orthodoxy of any kind, may be falling victim to fantasies that the past can block out the complexity and conflict of our modern world. Yet one can also hear in the yearning for the past a healthy recognition that some things about the way life used to be have great value for the psychological health of individuals as well as that of a nation.  Maybe such children and adults who critique of our society’s fast pace and and ambitious pressure by looking to history  can find a way of bringing lost values into the mainstream of the present. They may in fact be the very people who can guide us back . . . to the future.

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