Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 7, 2014

Nostalgia – a key component of resilience?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Dan OConnor on April 7, 2014

My oldest daughter and I were having a conversation which led to talk about my grandfather.  We were discussing the toughness and ruggedness of him and his era.  Born at the turn of the 20th century “Gramps” was everything I thought a man should be.  He was a boxer, slept in jails during the depression, worked in the Brooklyn Navy yard during World War II and did whatever he needed to do in order to provide.  I have yet to meet the man who I respected as much as my grandfather. He embodied what I thought all men of his age and Americans were: strong, smart, capable, dutiful, and unafraid.

I reminisced about one day sitting on a school bus with a bunch of cub scouts going to a New York Mets game for a father and son night.  My grandfather, then in his mid-70s, and another “grandpa” began to talk.  I listened agape as he described how he played against Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig during barnstorming games.

In the conversation I realized that this reminiscence, this idea of nostalgia has a powerful effect on expectations, performance and point of view.  In my maturation I recognize what I saw in him was probably not completely accurate, but was my interpretation of him. His characteristics, in my nostalgic point of view, are tantamount to what I need to return to when things and life are not ideal.  His actions in my nostalgic recollections are tantamount to resilience.

Resilience — as has often been mentioned in this blog — has many formulas and definitions.  It’s an overused aphorism in many instances and somewhat nebulous in others.  Resilience is part of a broader definition of panarchy and biodiversity.  Resilience is many things to many people and I think very easy and at the same time very difficult for some to define.

From the metaphorical point of view, I see resilience as the owed narrative of our nostalgic past.  We often speak about the Greatest Generation, the Depression, the Right Stuff, the American way.  All those phrases are versed in nostalgic virtue and have a theme of returning to something.  The return is part of the resilience definition.

In many of my postings over the years I notice I have an “I owe” theme.  I believe in my heritage and to a large extent the nationalist themes of exceptionalism and my time in the Marine Corps.  That said, it’s a bit abstract to shape ones actions on a subjective past.  Marines don’t want to let down marines of the past, those that came before them. It is certainly a bit weird, but then again not.

Our history, our expectations, and our belief system are shaped by a narrative of nostalgia.   To channel Phil Palin for a moment, the word nostalgia is a formation of a Greek compound, consisting of nóstos, meaning “homecoming”, a Homeric word, and álgos, meaning “pain, ache”; the word was coined by a 17th-century medical student.    Nostalgia can also be seen in that aching for home and the past as a purported ideal. That idea, the longing for a return, has a resilience theme in it.   Nostalgia may reflect an ambivalence of sorts, but it is a positive emotion.

Nostalgia, whether captured in history books or propagated in Frank Capra pictures, is part of the American experience. Maybe America has always been nostalgic, whether from our multiple immigrant pasts or simply the fringe of the empire creating a culture that embraced such reminiscence.  We often read and hear today that our online, nearly virtual lives and cultural shifts have eroded the sense of community and togetherness that we once experienced. Maybe more nostalgia at work!

In some psychological circles it is believed that nostalgia is necessary for people to be resilient.  Nostalgia may have a restorative function amongst resilient people and also bolster mental health.  Several studies indicate that it is a key attribute in returning to some type of mental symbiosis.   If the key to resilience in social-ecological systems is diversity, as some researchers present, than perhaps our national resilience and personal resilience would benefit from a diverse and rich nostalgic discovery .

The homeland security aspect of resilience is spoken of regularly and often in this blog.  Perhaps that’s an ingredient that we have overlooked: the narrative, with its distorted warts and all is a decidedly important aspect of building a resilient nation.

I was never unsafe, unprotected, or fearful in the presence or company of my grandfather.  He was easily the toughest, bravest, and most fearless man I have ever met.  He’s been gone now a good while, but his legacy and my remembrance of him lives on by what he would expect of me and how he lived his life.  If that is not nostalgia, than I do not know what it is.

Nostalgia is an important and often overlooked aspect of a personal and national resilience. It is based not in myth but in narrative shaped by two perspectives kluged together.  Maybe it’s time to reinforce who we are and where we come from as a key component of resilience.

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Comment by John Comiskey

April 7, 2014 @ 4:38 am


Honoring our past and our forbearers that have passed have a place in American culture(s).

A you suggest, nostalgia has a place in national resilience.

I too remember trips to Shea Stadium with my father. Having emigrated from Ireland, he knew little of the game. He spoke less about Ireland and more about how America offered opportunities that were not known in his native land.

My father’s American dream was for his five children to live out his dream, to be good citizens, to work hard, and to be Americans. Words at his requiem are testament to the American dream.

Final thought, my sense is that self-reliance underpins much of our American nostalgia.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 7, 2014 @ 5:14 pm

A brilliant and fascinating post but some have their resilience disarmed by nostalgia.

Personally I don’t ache for an older simpler time because I don’t believe there was one. Perhaps the two edged sword of technology makes this a more difficult time for many.

Comment by E. Earhart

April 7, 2014 @ 6:56 pm

Mr. O’Connor,

Your post made me think of a recent encounter; perhaps you have had the same experience. I recently noticed tucked into the corner of my closet, my desert battle dress uniform. I immediately experienced a warm feeling and many fond memories. Nostalgic, not necessarily for better time, but for a time well remembered.

It then flashed to my mind that I had become my grandfather and my father. I remember playing in my grandfathers closet and always seeing his WWII uniform (30-40 years later) hanging in the closet; I never knew why; as a boy I think I wondered is pap going to be called back into the army. My dad, the same thing, uniform hanging neatly in the closet. Now me. I started calling and e-mailing friends, not just military, but police and firefighters; many the same story.

Now, much like a seldom seen pet cat that sneaks up and brushes up against you, saying you don’t come around much, but I know you are loyal old friend, I brush up against that uniform and get the same nostalgic feeling.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

April 8, 2014 @ 1:54 am

I am with Bill on this one. Our memories or perceptions might be simpler, but I have no doubt the reality was anything but.

Honoring our past and our ideals is a fantastic idea. Learning your family’s history can be very important to improving the underlying, personal resilience of anyone.

However, in terms of resilience and homeland security writ large, in my opinion nostalgia tends to be more of a reflexive negative rather than a considered positive.

It lends itself to celebrations of the “resilience” of past generations when compared to the current, without acknowledging that our society is wealthier and healthier than it has ever been.

It ignores the trials and tribulations of everyone that was not a white male at the time. In my view, what in part makes this country so great is that we are constantly improving, adapting, and moving forward. This includes the manner in which we treat women, minorities, and the underprivileged.

I would agree that on the individual level, preparedness and self-preservation were more prevalent in times past. But this ignores the dynamism and growth that expanding urban-ism brings.

It also ignores the concept that vulnerabilities have fundamentally changed with this increasing density. Compared to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, New York City could only be viewed as a complete disorganized mess.

However, if viewed through the lens of contributions to the greater good of the nation, can anyone muster an argument for the ascendancy of Mayberry?

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