Is Nostalgia an Escape from the Present?

Last month I was in Bangalore on some work and had a pleasant surprise of meeting some old friends for an evening get-together and dinner. While the elders(from 3 families)preferred to spend time in a quiet restaurant for dinner, the children decided to roam around the mall. We spent several hours chatting without even realizing the passage of time till we were alerted by the restaurant staff. Needless to say that we were most of the time talking about the ‘good old days’ of 1980s when about 16 families lived together in a colony in Mumbai. At the end of it, all of us agreed it was a great evening. As we bid good-bye to each other I could see a definite sense of sorrow at the thought that the good time together was coming to an end. This is what Nostalgia does to you. In contrast, I’m sure the children enjoyed every bit of their time spent in the mall and left without any regret. The mall experience was over and they were done with that. No regrets.
I remember that as a young kid whenever my grandfather started off with a story about 1940s, I would mumble to myself “Not again” and try to find an escape route on some excuse!
I don’t think there is anything wrong with Nostalgia as long as it doesn’t lead to brooding. As someone put it –
“There is no greater sorrow
Than to recall a happy time
When miserable.”

I gather that the word Nostalgia has an interesting origin. The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means suffering.So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an “unappeased yearning to return.”

Nostalgia is a sign of aging. For instance, a child has no past to feel nostalgic about. So, he is completely living in the present whether he is crying, laughing or playing! Contrast this with some of our musings about our past:
‘Oh, during our young days, life was so simple, none of these complexities of these days’. Implicit in this statement is a firm belief that something simple is decidedly superior to something complex!

The point is that we glorify and romanticize our past while constantly decrying the present and feeling miserable. Also the past is invariably recollected partially and selectively as if in selective amnesia merely to justify our brooding.
Sometime back I was reading a book by Somerset Maugham titled HUMAN BONDAGE and I’m tempted to quote the following lines: “It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideal which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life.”

So, am I concluding that Nostalgia is bad since it takes you away from the present? I don’t want to be judgmental. Moreover it is just there whether one likes it or not. Biologists would perhaps say it serves an evolutionary purpose. I am told it’s a mechanism for self-preservation and nature’s way of keeping us out of depression in old age.

Published in: on January 25, 2014 at 9:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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