Nostalgia and Human Suffering
“You must always know the past, for there is no real WAS, there is only IS.”– William Faulkner.
I had a spare moment and decided to take the time to create a more substantial blog post- this time on the topic of nostalgia.
We need our memories to maintain a sense of self, to understand and shape our present and to project ourselves into the future. And yet, memories are never factual. They are a narrative co-created by ourselves and our world. More and more, it seems, we are taught, as individuals and as a culture, to replace the reality that does exist in memory with nostalgia.
Nostalgia is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” In this way, nostalgia is a longing for a home that never existed since no reality, past or present is wholly happy.
What is the psychological basis for nostalgia? What purpose does it serve? Nostalgia is a coping mechanism. A shield against anxiety and sadness. As humans, we are both temporal and transcendent. We are animals conscious of our own mortality. This is very anxiety provoking. We feel we have little control over our present or future but, through the use of nostalgia, we can manipulate our past to create a sense of peace and safety that can be applied to the whole of our existence. Current thought on the subject suggests that the positive benefits of nostalgia outweigh the negative. I would agree, as long as nostalgia is used in moderation along with the myriad other coping and defense mechanisms we use in everyday life.
However, nostalgia can be over-utilized to cope with an increasingly stressful world or to deny past trauma. We are not doing this alone. We have plenty of help. Digital technology allows us to create idealized versions of experiences while we are still experiencing them. The media creates idealized myths of people and lifestyles that cause us to wax nostalgic for things that never truly existed. This causes many people to imbue the past with romance, beauty and human connection they believe can no longer be found in today’s society.
Nowhere is this myth perpetuated more avidly than in Hollywood. For over 100 years, the movie making capital has manipulated the present and idealized the past and set the lifestyle bar for millions the world over. It is motivating and entertaining but it can also be also harmful.
In looking at these photographs taken in the late 1920’s of Gary Cooper and his then-girlfriend, Lupe Velez, we may long for a perfect relationship of our own or mourn a past where men were more chivalrous and women more feminine. What we can’t see is that these pictures, even at the time, were designed to hide the fact that Cooper (a notorious womanizer) and Velez (the Lindsey Lohan of her day) had a painful three-year relationship full of violence and volatility. (And when I say violence and volatility, I am referring to the current definition of these terms, not a special nostalgic definition that was somehow less damaging and less traumatic.) Their relationship would not have been out of place in any of today’s modern tabloids had the press accurately reported any of it to the public. Instead, the couple was held up as an impossible standard that could hardly be reached by an average person given the couple’s wealth, beauty and social standing.
Where is the harm in creating a better past? I’ve already pointed out that nostalgia can be useful. However, nostalgia can also be used to replace critical thinking with emotional longing, thereby allowing us to abdicate personal responsibility. If we create a picture of the past that has little bearing on reality, we are then unable to effectively make informed decisions about our present which then affects our future. Suffering undergone in the past and covered over by nostalgia can become suffering in vain. We will be destined to repeat our mistakes again and again. This is not only happening currently on an individual level but on a cultural level as well. As a society, we repeat past mistakes because we do not recognize them for what they WERE and present problems are misunderstood because we have made the past into something it never was.
That being said, I believe nostalgia has its uses. It can help alleviate anxiety, lessen depression and even act as a motivating factor if used in moderation as part of a holistic perspective which incorporates not just the past, but the present and future as well. This balanced view of our history is described by Alice Miller in, Drama of the Gifted Child, as she talks about a survivor of childhood abuse become aware of the truth of her past- “Where there had been only fearful emptiness or equally frightening grandiose fantasies, an unexpected wealth of vitality is now discovered. This is not a homecoming, since this home has never before existed. It is the creation of home.”