I recently heard a reporter state that they are seeing a “return to nostalgia”.
That made me laugh.
Did nostalgia disappear?
Are we now nostalgic for nostalgia?
Nostalgia is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”
However, the word nostalgia comes from a Greek compound, consisting of (nóstos), meaning "homecoming", and (álgos), meaning "pain" or “ache”.
It was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home.
Although I was somewhat surprised by the word’s origin, when I thought about the letters my daughter wrote from sleep-away camp begging to come home, complaining that the pain of being away from home was too much to bear, I could understand.
Johannes Hofer (1669–1752) was a Swiss physician who named the condition, which he identified as a mania tied to homesickness in Swiss mercenary soldiers. This sentimental yearning for home during field operations was viewed as a disorder of the brain, with symptoms ranging from melancholy and malnutrition to brain fever and hallucinations.
(And I thought my daughter was being a bit dramatic!)
A description of the condition was “characterized in four words—sadness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and weakness. The nostalgic loses his gayety, his energy, and seeks isolation in order to give himself up to the one idea that pursues him… He embellishes the memories attached to places where he was brought up, and creates an ideal world where his imagination revels with an obstinate persistence.” — Appleton's Journal, 23 May 1874
At some point, the definition of nostalgia changed and now has to do with something we feel when we reflect on memories of happy days and times when things appeared to be easier or more desirable.
As a general rule, older people express more nostalgic thoughts than younger ones since they have more years and experiences about which to be nostalgic! However, when my younger son was in fifth grade, he was given the letter N and asked to write a paper about something that started with the letter. For reasons that remain unclear to me, my ten year old son, chose to write about nostalgia. He has always been a bit of a romantic, yearning for things from his past, no matter how recently they occurred!
I learned that nostalgia has more to do with a wish for things to go back to the way they were, regardless of how recent they were.
A great example of this was that within weeks of being locked down, we became nostalgic for traveling, dinners out, going mask-less, and hugging.
The magnificent poet David Whyte sheds light on the experience of nostalgia in his masterpiece, Consolations.
“Nostalgia subverts the present by its overwhelming physical connection to a person or place, to a time in which we lived or to a person with whom we lived, making us wonder in the meeting of past and present if the intervening years ever occurred.”
“Nostalgia is not an indulgence. Nostalgia tells us we are in the presence of imminent revelation, about to break through the present structures held together by the way we have remembered something; something we thought we understood but are now about to fully understand, something already lived but not fully lived…something that was important but to which we did not grant importance enough.
Nostalgia is not the immersion into the past, but is the first annunciation that the past, as we know it, is coming to an end.”
These nostalgic yearnings can of course rob us of our present when we drift into memories and become one with longing, but we can also look at these stirrings of nostalgia as healthy reminders that the past is the past and that we are best served when we ground ourselves in the present and live life fully, knowing that this moment is what we will be nostalgic for at some later time.
Even the name of the movie The Way we Were evokes nostalgia. Years after my law school boyfriend and I had broken up, my mother would talk about how the characters in the movie played by Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford reminded her of the two of us. The film is about how these two complete opposites who were attracted to each other get a second chance to create a happy life together. There is yearning, longing and a deep sense that they should be together. Ultimately, the viewers, nostalgic for the passionate connection they had, are heartbroken that they can’t bring back into existence that spark, that connection, perhaps that fantasy. At the end of the film, we are forced to accept that their past is behind them, that what the two shared is no longer but that what will remain is just the memory of the way they were.
So, the question is what can we learn from nostalgia?
How do we allow ourselves to reconnect with memories that fill our hearts without transporting us to that place in search of what isn’t actually happening?
I think the lesson is that when we find ourselves sinking into nostalgia we should try to ascertain what the feelings are that cause us to yearn for the thing or person of the past. If we can figure out what we are longing for (love, acceptance, calm, belonging, peace) we can use the nostalgia to move us to be more truthful with ourselves about what we need and may be missing. Take a deep listen at the stirrings of the heart and ask. yourself if there’s an unfulfilled need in your life that needs attending to.
I am feeling very nostalgic these days about my early childhood with my family of origin. While I recognize that those days will never be back, and that three of the six original family members are now gone, I know that I am aching for the purity of family time, without distance or distractions. Perhaps I can focus on creating that kind of carefree time with my current family.
We all experience nostalgia; whether for a time or situation in our past, a person, a way of life, maybe even a place or environment.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz writes about it beautifully in his poem Last Night:
"Last night your lost memory visited my heart as spring visits the wilderness quietly, as the breeze echoes the silence of her footfalls in the desert, as peace slowly, softly descends on one's sickness.”
So allow those moments of nostalgia, notice how they fill you with sweet memories and love, but resist the urge to embellish the memories and create an ideal world where your imagination carries with it an "obstinate persistence". Instead, become aware of the feelings associated with the longing and embrace that vulnerable need for love and belonging and move towards creating that sensation internally.
Breathe in love, breathe out fear. Breathe in right, breath out now.
We all resonate with the lyrics of Yesterday by the Beatles but we know that they are based in nostalgic fantasy.
"Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday.
Yesterday love was such an easy game to play. Now I need a place to hide away. Oh, I believe in yesterday."
We all get it. We want yesterday. But when it was yesterday, we wanted something else. We need to welcome in the past and at the same time, complete it. You are all of it. Step into your powerful being, having moved through all of the experiences in your past, arriving at now.
Breathe in right.
Breathe out now.
And choose how you want this moment to be.
With love and light, Nora