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The Imperfection of Memory and Nostalgia

"It is one of the paradoxes of American literature that our writers are forever looking back with love and nostalgia at lives they couldn't wait to leave." Anatole Broyard

Last year, I published a blog about the concept of home (read it here). I postulated that people find home not only in places, but in people. More than one place can feel like home, and the community and communal history of a place are incredibly, irrevocably important. But I also know that I'm incredibly lucky to have had multiple homes that are safe, where I feel loved and accepted and completely myself. Regardless, we sometimes outgrow our homes, we crave newness or adventure or challenge. In the depths of my memory, home is a sacred place, and that is really how home should be. But the depths of any memory is an uncertain, unreliable, sepia-toned space where the past seems better than the present, if only for a moment.

Many people believe it is futile to entertain nostalgia, and the practice of looking back at the past with fondness or longing is often ridiculed in a hyper-active, forward-looking world where memory-even remembering phone numbers or birthdays- is automated and easy. Author and actor David Nicholls wrote, "From an evolutionary point of view, most emotions - fear, desire, anger - serve some practical purpose, but nostalgia is a useless thing because it is a longing for something that is permanently lost." What Nicholls failed to realize is that there is a notable difference between living in the past and reflecting on the past.

Dr. Constantine Sedikides, a psychology professor from the University of Southampton says, "...I did live my life forward, but sometimes I couldn’t help thinking about the past, and it was rewarding. Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom, and anxiety. It can make people act more generously toward strangers and be more tolerant of outsiders. Why? Because nostalgia is inherently comforting. Those who entertain nostalgia use thoughts of the past to make their present better. The problem with looking back fondly at the past is that we always remember it better than it was. Longing for the "good old days" is really just longing for an idea of what we imagine the past to be. Life was objectively no better or easier months/years/decades ago, despite what your memories would lead you to believe. It isn't entirely up to us as individuals to avoid or entertain nostalgic thoughts though. We idealize the past in our collective unconscious, writing nostalgia into our history books, saving photos in albums for the sole purpose of fondly looking back.

Photos like the one below might trigger nostalgia for times when the roads were less congested, when cars were simpler, when everything *seemed* simpler, but wasn't.

And a photo like this might trigger nostalgia for childhood (if you had a safe, comfortable childhood), when cookies or hot cocoa were synonymous with winter, the holidays, comfort, and safety. As adults, memories of childhood are few and far between, and we tend to hang onto only the good memories, discarding or consciously repressing the painful for bad ones. Usually, the only way we remember really bad memories is if we are triggered, but that's actually a good thing. Our brains a simple coping mechanism to protect us from pain.

Dr. Sedikides said, “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” and he's right. Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, while half report it as many as 3-4 times. But generally, we don't always realize or remember brief wanderings down memory lane. Nevertheless, researchers confirm that engaging in nostalgia (as opposed to reminiscing or longing for the past) makes people feel better. Good memories help us feel closer to those we love, and give us a sense of meaning, connection, and purpose. Nostalgia enriches our present and helps us think positively about the future, which make sense. If we have no good memories to look back on, our views of the future will be pretty bleak.

Singer Robert Brault said it best, "Nostalgia is a process by which dreams become memories without ever coming true."


Sarah Rose

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