What name does one give to the phenomenon of wistful longing for a past event that wasn’t event pleasant, or one that’s not actually in the past yet? Could it still be labeled as nostalgia?
Whether or not the name actually applies, these nostalgia-like feelings seems like ever-present sentiments in every stage of my life. In fact, even though I have terrible memory/usually can’t remember anything from my childhood, I have this one random vivid memory of grappling with nostalgia at an early age. I remember sitting on the school bus in 1st or 2nd grade and being excited about something that day (I can’t remember what) and subsequently having the thought that the state of excitement and happiness felt at that moment was something that the next day or even weeks from that day I would be looking back on with fond remembrance and longing, with nostalgia (obviously not articulated in such a way at the time). I remember then trying really hard for a few moments to just fully soak in the feeling of that moment and the events of that day that I knew would be so fleeting, to somehow hold onto them more deeply before they became things of the past to look back on.
Obviously, it was an impossible endeavor…it has even been said that there is really no such thing as the present moment, insofar as the present is comprised of such tiny fractions of time that our human mind can’t really grasp it. But nonetheless, I wanted to hold onto the present, and in doing so, felt this subtle nagging anxiety for what I knew would quickly be a moment of the past, no matter how much I tried to hold on.
The nagging anxiety to hold onto the present, and ultimately, the past, has followed me around ever since….spreading and taking on new forms and disguises, almost like a disease. It was in one of my college courses that I remember making the ironic discovery that the idea of ‘nostalgia’ actually first emerged in the 19th century being perceived as exactly that: a disease. That is, it was seen and treated (sometimes harshly) as an actual medical illness, a psychopathological disorder. While the idea of nostalgia over time lost this connotation of illness and strayed instead into the realm of romanticism and literature, I think it still regains the same underlying potency to infect a person’s mental and physical well being if not regulated.
This may be a bit of a dramatic take on nostalgia, but just given the all-encompassing nature it seems to play in my own life, particularly as it relates to aging, I think I’ve begun to subconsciously regard it as some kind of disease to be cured. The more I come to realize just how much my aversion to aging has not subsided with each passing year but in fact deepened (made worse by the fact that each year continues to represent an even older age), the more I find the necessity to get at the heart of my nostalgia for youth in particular, whatever ‘youth’ might mean.
It’s not a fear of grey hair and wrinkles, coming more closely to death, or even a fear of failing to reach some preset idea or expectation of what is meant to happen at any specific age. Nor is it that I think that youth is inherently superior to being older, despite the subliminal narrative affirming such a notion in most media these days (particularly for women). Perhaps I can best describe it as an anticipation of the loss of youth itself. And since I realize this description is still barely a description, I’ll borrow the words of another who has reflected on this topic and so uncannily captured exactly how I feel about it in her essay:
“What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life.”
Just as the essayist Meghan Daum alludes in her reflection on the subject, I also recognize that such a sentiment is of course a complete romanticization of youth and the excitement attached to such a state, one often overshadowing the real lived experiences that may not have been so pleasant, despite the fact that we had the ‘gleaming architecture’ of the future to placate us at the time. What’s more, I also realize that my misplaced longing for this idealized period of youth that probably never even existed to begin with is made that much more ridiculous by the fact that part of my longing for it is directed at the present moment. The above referenced essay to which I found myself relating so closely describes this nostalgia from the point of view of a middle-aged woman longing for her twenties. And, just as first-grade me felt that day I tried so desperately to hold onto the present, my current nostalgia for youth is almost just as much an anticipatory longing for a past time that has not yet become the past as it is a longing for my actual younger days, particularly in recognizing that I still could consider myself in the midst of youth from the reference point of my older future self.
At the moment, this abstract longing for a nonexistent idealized past and a period of youth in which the future towered over me continues to take on a multitude of unexpected forms. This is perfectly illustrated by the most recent longings for a distinctly-tumultuous-but-rewarding-in-retrospect time of my life: the 7 months I spent living and working in Zimbabwe. They rise and fall, without warning or reason, as a series of flashbacks tinged with pangs of yearning:
An image of running through the row of jacaranda trees that formed a long green canopy down the street next to my house, recalling the way the light pierced through the leaves onto the pavement in beautiful outlines and caught my eyes in flashes as I ran by them; glimpses of beauty which at the time actually felt like rare breaths of fresh air amidst weeks spent mostly behind a computer screen…
A sudden strong craving for the bland meals served at my office canteen…the same $1.50 plate of rice, chicken, greens and butternut I ate nearly every single day at the office, always marveling at my own taste buds for somehow never seeming to tire of the plain, monotonous experience each time….
Some song, image, or smell that jolts me back not into a past time but a past emotion, not so much as a re-experience of the emotion but as if viewed through the eyes of a spectator; a remembering of the emotional states that at specific times became the entire lens through which I experienced my life, though often skewed and limiting in nature…
A feeling of safety and comfort in remembering a Saturday in which the highlight of my day was a run or trip to the grocery store (the few forms of ‘breaks’ I allowed myself for the majority of my time there, always with the heavy weight of unfinished work preventing me from desiring much else by way of breaks); the kind of comfort not grounded in contentment necessarily but in simplicity, and perhaps even lack of choice (or at least a feeling of lack of choice)…
As is probably evident from these descriptions, the majority of these things I feel nostalgic for are nothing remarkable or particularly enjoyable; in fact, many were the opposite of pleasant. And yet, even in having this awareness and surface-y recollection of the unpleasant emotions felt at the time, I continue to reminisce nostalgically over them, to almost unwillingly yearn for them. The thing is, regardless of what my actual daily experience was at the time, I think much of its allure to my present mind is that it was distinctly a period which had a clear transitional and temporary quality to it, a period intended to bestow upon me life lessons and allow me to delve into confusion with the knowledge that the future still lay ahead. I knew that even if it turned out I failed completely at the job and left from it broken and confused, it would ultimately still serve as a time of growth and a jumping point from which to move towards my next life context, whether grad school or a career shift, equipped with the lessons of the last.
And the paradoxical thing about this seemingly comforting knowledge of a future full of possibility, flexibility, and time, is that its comforting qualities rarely seem evident at the time. Only in recalling the period later, once it feels as though less ‘future’ lay ahead, does it feel like something has been lost, and is thus something to long for. Really, it is a yearning not so much for any specific event or experience but for the underlying current of ‘youth’ that characterized all of them. I like the way the essayist Daumer articulates this phenomenon through a fictitious interaction in which her Older Self gives wisdom to her Younger Self, but doesn’t have the heart to tell her about the nostalgia that will be most unbearable later on, to tell her Younger Self that:
“…the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable because…they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them.”
And, at the center of this nostalgic longing is really a romanticization and unfounded worshipping of our younger selves based on the notion that whatever we did in youth represented, as another author puts it, “our highest potentiality at a point before crumbling into the reality of necessary concessions and mediocrities.”
And with this recognition, one might ask oneself, would you really want to go back to that time representative of endless potential, if you had the choice? Or would you opt for the current, inevitably wiser, even if not necessarily more ‘grown up’, version of you? I have a feeling most would go with the latter…and I think I would too if really given such a choice…just in taking stock of what you know you know now that you didn’t know then, even if that knowledge is in many cases characterized by more confusion and uncertainty. That’s probably part of the beauty of aging: not some grand epiphany or stepping over some static line from youth to fully fledged adulthood, but simply a state of deeper knowing – the kind that lends itself to expanded awareness of how much you don’t know and how much there is yet to be known. The kind of knowing that we often taken for granted as we reminisce over our romanticized younger selves.
But with all that said, even my own words on the beauty and gift that is aging do little to quell the continuous nagging nostalgia for the period of ‘youth’ the more I move away from it. The closest conciliation I’ve found of late is in the recognition that I’m not alone in my paradoxical romanticization of and nostalgia for the experiences of my younger self. There is always comfort in knowing that your own irrational responses are not unique to you but something deeply human and, in that, a unifying experience. So, in the absence of any satisfying conclusions, I’ll instead share some further reflections from others who have felt the same and articulated my own sentiments much better than I could have: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/09/meghan-daum-unspeakable/