Nostalgia is a characteristically human disease, a motivated remembering of an irrecoverable past that never really existed. Or so I define it. As a recovering philologist, I feel a compulsion to define terms before discussing them. In grad school, whenever we had a talk or a visiting speaker, one of my professors would always ask questions about the terms the speaker was using. “Let’s start by considering,” he would muse while looking at the ceiling, “what we mean by amicus.” Some would roll their eyes, I would chuckle at his well-known obsession with definitions while appreciating the demand for precision.
But even now I far too often fail to look up English words in the dictionary when it always was the first step when studying Latin or Greek. In Greek, nostos is ‘a return home’ while algos is ‘pain, grief, or distress of body or mind’. Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition’. ‘Wistful’ is key, as it implies, per the dictionary once again, melancholy, tapping into the ‘irrecoverable’ nature of the past.
But the temporal past is not universally the concept that nostalgia conjured in human minds across cultures and time. Nostalgia forms the backbone of one of the earliest works of world literature. Homer’s Odyssey happens to be the most famous story about the Nostoi, the homecomings, of the Greek heroes from Troy, but it was merely one among many. Others include Agamemnon’s ill-fated homecoming and Menelaus’ homeward journey to Greece by way of Egypt. Even in the Iliad the Greek characters are consumed with a desire to return home. For them, their nostalgia was a desire to return to their physical homes and a past that was recoverable if not guaranteed to be recovered.
In English we generally differentiate nostalgia and homesickness, the former defined as above, the latter defined as ‘longing for home and family while absent from them’, though homesickness is practically deemed a synonym for nostalgia by English dictionaries. The ancient Greeks’ expressions of nostalgia in the Iliad and the Odyssey were manifestations of homesickness. But in English and in modern Western culture broadly (though I only have truly firsthand knowledge of American culture) nostalgia as it inflicts large swaths of the population, myself included, involves significant self-deception and motivated remembering (or misremembering or forgetting), which, similar to motivated reasoning, is the emotionally-biased selective recall of memories based on their desirability. (Imagine my ego’s disappointment when I discovered that I hadn’t coined the term ‘motivated remembering’.)
In short, we actively forget the bad times, or even mediocre times, and want to relive the good times as if the bad times never happened in the hopes that reliving the past will finally make us happy. As if the past, our childhoods, high school years, the time before we got married, before we had kids, as if each of these periods is better than the last the farther we go back. Even yearning for times when we never lived—the decade of our parents’ childhoods, the decades of our grandparents’ youth—as if things allegedly being ‘simpler’ then meant they were inherently better.
I often nostalgically think back to my high school days and remember the friends and sports and free-time and the lack of responsibilities and so on. And yet what I choose to forget until the memories inexorably bubble to the surface are the 18-hour days getting up at 5:15am for swimming practice at 5:45am followed by a full day of school and drudgery merely punctuated by moments when I would pass a friend in the hall or exchange pleasantries upon entering a classroom. And then swimming practice again after school until 5:30pm and a mountain of homework that kept me up past 10 or 11 most nights. All that was more important than sleep of course. I never saw the sun during the winter swimming season and while that may sound rather dramatic, it’s true and I thought about it every day. One of the small pleasures of my day was my study hall period, which I was able to substitute for PE class because I was doing a varsity sport, during which I was able to catch a few blissful minutes of sleep.
And so, I forget the days upon days of this drudgery in favor of the flashes of fun and joy and friendship that made up one percent of my life at the time.
And I am willing to bet that I am not unique.
This mindset, this disease infects us in our private lives and in our public discourse. Always the desire for the impossible return to some better time that never existed.
Nostalgically-motivated remembering functions as a kind of procrastination, a way to avoid the challenges of the present in favor of a hallucinated past because the future is unknown and unknowable. The past is thus recreated and relived in one’s mind rather than dealing with the challenge of the future. Remembering the past is important, essential even. But misremembering the past is an exercise in self-deception and wanting to, or trying to, relive that hallucinatory past can be disastrous.
Yet the fact remains that all those times we reach back to were once the present. The good times we reach for were present along with the bad so that in a sense, despite the delusion that magnifies the negative and minimizes the positive, even this present moment will one day be a time that we reach back for nostalgically such that all we really have to do is realize that the present is all we have and we can, in a sense, enjoy the present as if we were nostalgic for it because what we will be nostalgic for exists right now. All we have to do is realize this fact. To take the whole present for all that it is and savor what we will feel nostalgic for while attempting to find pleasure in what we will seek to forget.
As the poet once said:
Despite what we have lost there still remains
now, now is all we have, the sum total,
the only remedy is living now,
the recognition of the present time.
Though we are always, ever losing now,
there always is another now, once more,
and we need not lose now ever again.
(Spoilers: it was me. And I fail at it every day)
This essay was written as part of the monthly Symposium at the Soaring Twenties Social Club (https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/). You can find the July 2022 issue on Nostalgia here: https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/p/on-nostalgia