Contemplation: My Unease with Nostalgia

This Kottke post (in which Mad Men’s Don Drapper talks about nostalgia, mashed into a Facebook promotion) made me think about my constant unease with both the feeling and idea of nostalgia.

I remember, probably a little over a year ago or so, saying to Eliza, that I don’t like nostalgia.  I think she found this a weird comment, but the more I think about it the more that I feel it stronger.  There is something very wrong with nostalgia in my opinion.

Consider, first, the very meaning of the word, from it’s original Greek.  Nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos which means “returning home” and algos meaning “pain, ache.”  So literally, the word refers to the return to the pain and ache.  Not exactly a nice thing when you think about it.  Furthermore, nostalgia was originally a kind of medical condition likened to the melancholy of past medicines.  Nostalgia, in its origins of description was not a good or admirable thing, but an illness inflicted on the minds of people.

In modern usage we hardly ever think of it as such.  We consider nostalgia as simply a remembrance of the better past times.  Often the feeling of nostalgia accompany thoughts and memories of things like happy childhoods, simpler lives, times when everything make sense.  Often the nostalgic feeling is a good one.  Sure, those times are gone, but at least we have them in memory. The problem is, by its nature, the nostalgia creates a desire, perhaps secret in feeling, for a return to those “better” times. 

I know nostalgia because I have felt it many times throughout my life.  It is a heart-strings tugging, thinking, “If only I could be there again.”  But it is false.  We do not think of the present in nostalgic ways, because in the moment we see things with a broader and crisper clarity.  It is only when memories have been garnished by a bit of time, that we tend to remember only the things that made us feel good, or that were desirable.  The pst was not better than the present.  Certainly it may not have been worse either.  Simply put, the pst was a time, when people lived, faced their challenges, had their ups and downs, and the human experience was much the same.  Through the lens of nostalgia we tend to think of some past ideal, but we often miss the fact that the ideal never existed in the first place.  Those things we remember from the past were not all that special or ideal, until time and memories provided us the opportunity to long for them again.   It is this, above all else, that puts me in unease about nostalgic thinking.  It is misleading, misguiding, and, ultimately, false.

I don’t think we are capable of actually avoiding nostalgic feelings and thinking.  I think that these are an innate part of the human mental process.  However, I think that with a little practice and diligence, we can guard against letting ourselves get carried away with overly nostalgic feelings.  Sure, there are times when it might feel a bit good to remember the past and think of things done and gone, but we must work to grand these thoughts in a realistic perspective.  The world then while different in some ways, was still very much like the world now.  Bad things happened just as much as good things, and people, in general, were still just trying to survive.  Thinking too ideally about that past time undervalues the challenges that had to be overcome then to reach our current moments in history.

Nostalgia is a veil.  It masks the past in pretty makeup and makes us feel an aching longing for that “better time.”  But behind all the pretty blush and lipstick, is a time not too unlike our un-made-up present.  We must work to see that, lest we miss the fact that life, will always have its hardships and challenges, but these, make things more worth living and surviving.

~ by Nathaniel on September 28, 2011.

One Response to “Contemplation: My Unease with Nostalgia”

  1. […] regret (regret is not a helpful feeling) nor do I ever really wish I could go back to that time (as I have written recently I don’t like nostalgia too much).  Things change, often quickly, but for the most part we survive, and learn, and grow.  I find […]

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