The first article, "The Art of Resilience," by Mandy Oakland, was published in the June 1st edition of Time Magazine, and begins by describing how a psychiatrist subjected his children to "semi-dangerous" adventure trips to force them out of their comfort zone. He did this in the belief, now shared by other scientists, that people's brains can become more resilient by subjecting them to hardships. Having endured one hardship can make it easier to endure others because success breeds success. It reminded me of the quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, That which does not kill us, makes us stronger." While I wouldn't want my children or grandchildren to suffer, I do believe in the importance of delayed gratification and in teaching children to be strong and independent, something I'm afraid all the "helicopter" parents out there just don't get. The article goes on to talk about how people's brains can be trained to become more resilient and references resilience research with Vietnam prisoners of war and Army Special Forces survivors of "horrific tragedies" who used their resiliency skills to survive. There are, lucky for us, several other ways that some people can build resiliency, and one involves the use of nostalgia, which is referenced in the second article.
At first, I wasn't too crazy about the title of the second article, "The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Resiliency and Nostalgic Reverie," by Steven Schlozman, as it seemed to imply that nostalgia was a fantasy involving the past, a lie in fact. However, while the article does present the original definition of nostalgia in 1668 in a negative way, as an illness resulting from the severe homesickness of soldiers, for example, it also talks about a shift in the word's definition. "There are increasing bodies of research suggesting that nostalgia is itself a powerfully positive psychological force. Researchers have noted that indulgences in the positive aspects of nostalgia can stave off dementia." In other words, the article maintains that while nostalgia is an inaccurate portrayal of the past, it can be useful, even therapeutic. According to the article about resiliency and nostalgic reverie, we should celebrate the positive aspects of nostalgia, but "for nostalgia to have its resilient potency, we must also be aware of our own ruse." In other words, we need to be aware that we may be seeing the past through rose colored glasses.
So, how does all of this relate to memoir, and to personal historians who interview clients for their stories? I maintain that listening to what are apparently nostalgic memories can be a useful starting point, a place to begin an exploration of a client's life or story. Let's take a look at the Merriam-Webster definition I found for nostalgia: a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. I'm sure that most people, especially personal historians who deal with older generations, have heard a lot from clients about "the good old days." When my father would wax nostalgic about his past, I would often argue with him, pointing out that while life might have been good for him, it was miserable for many others during the years he grew up, such as Blacks experiencing discrimination in all aspects of their lives. He didn't like my comments, and disagreed with some of them, but we always had quite lively discussions as a result. Some of his views changed as time went by, and I like to think those discussions might be one reason - or maybe I'm just waxing nostalgic myself!
I'm not suggesting that personal historians or others who assist with memoir should challenge nostalgic memories, but that they should explore them with the storyteller, listening not only to the words, but to the feelings associated with these memories. Most personal historians are not therapists and need to tread lightly in this area. We all reconstruct our past to a certain extent, and exploring our feelings about the past can be very helpful, even therapeutic, if done in a respectful manner. They can also be very painful and damaging to clients or storytellers who have not learned how to be resilient. When your client is obviously seeing his past through rose-colored glasses, explore this with him, asking him not only about himself, but about others in the area and what life may have been like for them. Your client may begin to realize that his lens of the past is colored - either positively or negatively - and will then be able to tell his story in a more realistic manner. Be gentle, though. Some people simply need to see their past in a more positive light than the facts may proclaim. If your client is already resilient enough to face the facts about his own life, the process can be beneficial. If not, it is not your job to challenge him. A client's perception is his reality, and he is the author of his own reality.