On Nostalgia: The Perils and Promise of Looking Back

Photo via Susanne Nilsson

Photo via Susanne Nilsson

I heard from a friend on Facebook the other day. Before long we were swapping memories, reminiscing about people we knew and experiences once shared.

I could do that stuff for hours. The pleasure of looking backward is, for me, almost inexhaustible. Little tops the thrill of suddenly remembering some incident that had been covered over with the detritus of time, of taking it out, shaking the dust off and letting it sit again for a while on the front shelf of the mind.

Nostalgia gets a bad rap. Many think of it as something to be avoided, a negative influence, a mental habit that corrodes the will and prevents positive action.

There’s more to it than that.

In spite of its negative reputation, I remain convinced the overall effect of nostalgia is salutary. I should know, I am well acquainted with it. Even when not reconnecting with old friends, I am oriented toward the past, both the past of our nation and culture and my own, personal history. I always have been. Ever since childhood, I have tended toward a pack-rat like resistance to throw things away, convinced that discarding even the meanest item meant discarding the memory of it.

As a person whose deepest connections are through memory, I am here to tell you that nostalgia has its downsides, sure, but its upsides are equally powerful and much less recognized.

The Dark Side

First, let’s acknowledge the shadow. Nostalgia has disadvantages. It can cripple. It’s easy to spend your time thinking back to the way things were. You can be sad about what you’ve lost. Losses are real and they come to everyone. When they hurt, nostalgia is a natural anesthetic.

The problem though isn’t the nostalgia, it’s the stuckness. Anything, including nostalgia, that keeps us from moving forward is a problem. If you’re spending your time pining for what is lost and not taking positive action to improve the present, you’ve lost your way.

The Other Side

Instead, use nostalgia as a motivator for action. When we look back at better times in our lives, times when things weren’t so tough, our response ought to be to get up and get going on making the present equally good.

If you are going to be nostalgic, you’ve got to remember that the present will someday be the past. You have to anticipate your future nostalgia. You don’t want to look back on today and be filled with regret about the work you didn’t do. Imagine yourself already in the future looking back on today and do the things that will make future you proud.See, nostalgia serves us well when it prompts us to relish and to seek to preserve what is good in the present. Everything is passing away. Looking back at what has already passed helps us to see the present is temporary. When we know that our present circumstances, bad and good, are not permanent, it helps us either endure or embrace them. Sometimes both.

Nostalgia, and the insight it brings, prompts us to create reminders for ourselves, those little mementos we hope will, in years to come, spark a memory of something long-forgotten. This is why people take so many pictures. It’s not that they enjoy photography as much as they enjoy anticipating the nostalgia they will feel years from now looking back on those images. These souvenirs serve both as a bulwark against total loss and as an opportunity to relive the loss of that important moment.

Anti-nostalgia people say that when we look back, at those lost moments, we imagine them better than they were, that we don’t really see things as they were, as we saw them at the time. This accusation is partly true.

We don’t see things as we saw them then. When we look back, whether via some artifact carried forward with us in time or only in our imaginations, we see circumstances more clearly than we do when we are living through them. People typically assume the opposite: that we see most clearly at the moment, but that things get rosy in retrospect.

That assumption, of course, estimates the average person’s ability to see through circumstances too highly. In the moment, we are beset by petty concerns, committed to agendas, distracted by worries, all of which warp our perspective. Since most of us live with an entrenched victim mindset, our thinking in any given moment of the present is likely to be self-pitying and to exaggerate the difficulties we find ourselves in.

And this is the greatest advantage of looking back. When we look back we see more clearly what our circumstances actually were. Our viewpoint is less impeded by the desires and goals of that moment. Nostalgia allows us to be more honest about ourselves and about the mistakes we made. In short, nostalgia is that feeling you get when you look back and see the truth, but have no way to live that moment again, only this time more wisely.

So, we come round again to the now. Used well, nostalgia is a temporary hobby. It is an escape from the present into a memory world where we can be more accountable, more open, where our understanding is more expansive. But, it is not a world where we can stay. We must come back and, if our trip has been productive, find ourselves strengthened to live now as we wish we had lived then.

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