Misplaced Longing


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/


Scratched and Faded Letters

I’ve lived in Johannesburg for nearly two years. I tell people I can’t believe it, that it doesn’t feel like two years has passed, that I don’t know where the time has gone, but the words fall short of the depth of bewilderment which underlies them. I have significant memories from these past two years, no doubt, and I know that things have happened, time has passed, things have changed, the world has been moving, but at the same time, I struggle to fully grasp and feel the weight of what it would seem two-years worth of memories should contain. In my mind, they feel light and fleeting…as if the time barely existed…as if I just stepped foot off the plane into my new country, my new job, my new life. Somehow that is the memory that bears the greater weight, the deeper sense of reality, than the compilation of two years as a post-graduate adult living life thousands of miles away from what once was home.

This sentiment has felt all the more troubling when juxtaposed with the physical signs of the passage of time, the signs that force the resistant mind to admit to the reality of the fact that time keeps moving. And strangely enough, the one that has incited the strongest emotion has been my travel coffee mug: the thin, translucent tumbler with the Northwestern emblem detailed in purple on one side. The tumbler which, when first receiving it, I so distinctly remember thinking “good thing I came to this one,” after realizing I’d get to keep it as a free gift from one of the many graduation ceremonies I went along to mostly for my parents’ sake in my last days of undergrad. The tumbler which sparks memories of the long, decisive and deliberate packing process I embarked on days before my journey overseas – determining it would make the cut as one of the necessary items to receive a spot in my precious luggage space. The tumbler I remember carrying in my brown leather adult-like work bag, filled with sub-par instant coffee, as I walked into my new office filled with uncertainty and expectation my first day of work, and proceeded to carry with me every single morning since that day. Since then, it has become an invisible staple of my surroundings – an item rendered insignificant by its practical utility and regular presence and use in my daily life.

But recently, something about it caught my eye – something which I found more disturbing than I perhaps wanted to admit: I saw that the royal purple enamel which once formed the perfect block lettering spelling out the name of my alma mater now revealed scratched out remnants of letters – the S and H only half remaining, the Y completely etched away; and the ornate and detailed emblem above NORTHWESTERN now reduced to a barely visible outline of circles, its edges traced by indiscernible symbols and letters – a shadow of what it once was.

As strange as I know it sounds to be rendered dumbfounded by the scratched out lettering of a coffee mug, it was in that instant that a realization of something I was already well aware of in some unconscious part of my mind finally forced its way to the surface and refused to be ignored: that this was undeniable, physical, tangible, concrete evidence that time that had passed.

On the one hand, each time I reflected on my own life with the introspective eye of expectation for what the passage of time and growing up is supposed to look like in an individual, I felt unsatisfied with the inability to see and feel what I knew to be true: that I’ve changed, that I have lived, that things are different now. Looking at myself, I still felt exactly as I did two years ago – not in a negative way exactly, or in a way that implies we all must change drastically with the passing of each year or that any certain milestones must happen, but just simply that it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right because we essentially are our experiences. None of us are constant beings – from our physical cells to our brain activity to our ever-evolving souls. And with these experiences that become us, with this constant motion all around us and within us, it follows that something should be evident…felt…noticed.

But this didn’t seem the case when I looked at myself or filtered through my thoughts or sorted through my memories. Only in looking at the scratched out purple letters of my mug…or of the gigantic Builders’ Warehouse that stands erect across from the apartment where I used to live – in a spot where once only dirt and bricks stood…or of the mall which has doubled in size, with shiny new stores and large glass windows down my street where once there was only empty space…or of the friends to whom I once ventured in taxis across town to see every other weekend who are now scattered in all corners of the world…or the fellows with whom I had shared the continent a year ago who have now started degrees, found new jobs, established new lives on other continents…or of the high school friends I have long ago lost touch with who I see getting married or having children as I unwittingly yet instinctually click through their wedding or baby photos on Facebook…or of the dear souls I had the bounty of meeting in South Africa and briefly crossing paths with on this earth who are now no longer on this physical plane…

Only then, for a brief instant, do I feel the true weight of time.

But while these concrete signs of time’s passage each capture my attention and open my eyes a bit wider to their deeper implications, they’ve also made me that much more anxious to reconcile the physical and concrete signs with those less tangible. I wonder as well whether time without the physical markers of its passing, or time without the arbitrary numbers we assign to it in an attempt to make it more concrete and feel as though we wield some control over it, would hold the same weight in our minds. If I could not define it as two years of time that has gone by, or define myself as 24 – a constant reminder of my own time on this earth that comes with its own implications – then would I still expect something from it? Would I let time exercise its control over me the way I know I do now?

Maybe it is the misleading impression that time brings with it forward motion which creates these feelings of disconnect and disjointedness. Forward motion implies motion towards something – a direction of some sort that we have envisioned for ourselves or for the things around us. But time does not inevitably bring us towards anything. In fact, it could even take us backwards (or what we would perceive as backwards in relation to whatever it is we subconsciously – or consciously – thought we were moving towards).

I would try to put this in more concrete terms, but in my own case, I am still trying to figure out what exactly it is I had expected to be moving towards that has left me feeling as though time has deceived me…enlightenment? wisdom? understanding? or something more tangible? something to show for when thinking back at how I’ve spent most of my hours these past two years – impact on other people’s lives? new skills and talents from my work experiences? more confidence, more self-assurance in my abilities? or something more abstract? some new experience of love? the capacity to distinguish reason from emotion?

I don’t know. But I can’t help but look back with a longing for more evidence of time’s marker in myself as much as I see it in the physical changes around me. But in saying this, I also recognize the passivity latent in such a desire….one implying again that time itself provides the force for motion in a direction…if there should even be a direction to begin with. But if there should be, then one of the characteristics of time that I find most frightening is that if we choose to not act towards something or initiate changes or make things happen, our lack of ‘motion’ does not reflect stagnation in the wake of potential progress, but in fact represents regression – because time never stops moving. And if we exist in the context of this ever-moving force that is time, then the act of not moving in some ways becomes backwards motion.

I think I find this frightening because, as is well known, when we grow older, time seems faster as each year becomes a smaller fragment relative to the amount of time we’ve spent living. And with each passing year, I feel myself scrambling to hold onto each piece that meant something to me, to internalize and make something of what has passed and ensure that it does not become lost in the accumulation of too many layers of memory and self. I can’t even fully say why this feels so necessary, but perhaps it is to feel that my time has been well-spent and that I am capable of some kind of forward motion — that I have not wasted the opportunities presented to me by the people and experiences that have come into my life, nor failed to enact some kind of positive change, some sort of progress in the world – no matter how small or insignificant…


As I still struggle to fully comprehend the fact that I am about to be 23, a number which once seemed so large and mature in my middle school imagination, I also am kind of ready to embrace it. In particular, as I think back to all that has happened in 22 and the countless ways I have grown because of it, I am curious to see what 23 will bring. Before entering this new, slightly daunting age, however, I just want to take one last moment to reflect on some of the important realizations from the past year.

So with that, here are the lessons that 22 taught me:

1. You are stronger than you think.

This one probably took the longest to arrive at and apparently it took getting through depression to actually realize it. I still feel a weird sense of guilt just using the term itself, because I know of people who have suffered from depression their entire lives and it feels like I am somehow claiming the same level of struggle by use of the term. But perhaps my hesitance to state it is partially an effect of the general stigma towards it…I’ve realized I shouldn’t feel guilty or embarrassed to admit to something that was out of my control, and does in fact affect a lot of people at least once in their lives. Mine was short-term (only a few months) and not brought on by any single event or moment, but was basically the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced: the feeling of having lost all control over my own thoughts and emotions.

It’s not just being sad for an extended period of time; it’s having your mind constantly tell you things that are untrue and having some recognition of their absurdity to some extent, but still being unable to stop thinking them and being physically and mentally affected by them on a daily basis. It’s becoming so out of touch with reality (about yourself and about how other’s see you) that you don’t realize how irrational your thoughts are until you’ve managed to finally snap out of the depressive state. The worst moment I can remember was just simply coming to understand what it meant to feel hopeless (while at the same time guilty for feeling that way because I knew I had no real reason to be sad about anything). I can vividly recall the day I had gone into my friend’s room, who was usually the one person that could actually make me feel better when something was bothering me, and she happened to also be going through something at the time. As we just laid there, each trying to comfort the other with words of reason, neither really getting through to the other, I suddenly realized that no matter what she told me, and no matter how much I wanted to believe it all, I just couldn’t. I finally just stopped trying and stared silently at the ceiling as I wondered to myself if I’d ever be able to just feel happy again.

This all sounds so melodramatic and ridiculous as I write it out now, but that is truly how I felt at the time and I think that is what makes it so scary. For me, it was almost as if I was just an entirely different person when I look back at the way I felt during that time and how I possibly could have thought and believed the things I did. But from having been in that state and comparing it to where I am and how I feel now, it is impossible to not feel as though I have become at least a little stronger because of it. I still have a billion doubts about myself, as do many people, but having come out of something that I literally thought was impossible a year ago, and now having the ability to look back and see the good that came out of the bad, it also makes me feel slightly more assured in my ability to overcome whatever other challenges I might face in the future. At the same time, by attributing feeling stronger to overcoming a period of depression, I want to be sure not to imply that depression is in any way a sign of weakness, and I know that so many people suffer through it their entire lives and it is out of their control to ever fully come out of it. I just mean that everyone has challenges they will overcome in their life, whatever they may be, and the great thing are those times when you can clearly see the positive aspects that came out of things that were terrible.

2. There are some things in life that are out of your control.

I think this was the hardest lesson I learned this year – especially as it pertains to friendships. Before last year, I had always thought that if a friendship ends, it is because people gradually grew apart with distance and time, or because of a fight in which someone hurt the other. As much as people had told me of their experiences with friendships ending just as a natural part of adulthood and people changing, I still never believed that things really worked that way. Depression just adds a whole new level of complexity to the reality of people growing apart. When you yourself are not even sure what is going on with you and why your are feeling the way you are, it is inevitable that other people may not necessarily understand it either. I don’t mean to say that a person can’t be supportive even when they can’t relate, but just that there are some times when the divide becomes too big and neither one really gets the other anymore.

In sum, I basically lost a a friendship I valued as a result of this divide. And the hardest part of it all was coming to terms with the fact that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Our life experiences shape who we are and how we think, and sometimes you just come to a point where you realize you no longer are on the same page with someone you used to be close to. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do to make a person understand where you’re coming from, and sometimes, in rare cases, the only thing you can do is accept it and move on.

In any case, the experience has taught me an extremely valuable lesson in love and forgiveness. There is a Baha’i quote that says: “Recognize your enemies as friends, and consider those who wish you evil as the wishers of good. You must not see evil as evil and then compromise with your opinion, for to treat in a smooth, kindly way one whom you consider evil or an enemy is hypocrisy, and this is not worthy or allowable. You must consider your enemies as your friends, look upon your evil-wishers as your well-wishers and treat them accordingly. Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred. Let not your heart be offended with anyone. If some one commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him.”

Although I would obviously never go so far as to call anyone my enemy, this quote still so beautifully describes what it truly is to forgive….just in any situation where you are hurt by another person, whether intentionally or not. Forgiveness isn’t simply letting go of what happened, but actually loving the other person regardless and considering them as a friend irrespective of how they see or treat you. It is easy to tell yourself that you’ve forgiven someone, and even fool yourself into believing that you have, but you soon come to realize that you haven’t truly forgiven until you can draw that person to mind and wish nothing but the best for them.

3. Always appreciate your friends.

Although difficult life experiences like depression can sometimes lead to people growing apart, it also can make you realize just how amazing the people in your life are. I can’t even properly express how much appreciation and awe I have for my friends…from the friend who I always knew had my back, but never could have imagined the amount of patience and love that could be exhibited by any single person, to the friend who never showed much emotion but with a few simple, straightforward words, somehow made me aware of the thousands of different ways that people can show they care, to the friends who didn’t even really know what I was going through at the time but simply reminded me of the fact that so many amazing people exist in the world and that in itself is something to be happy about. And then there are the new friends I made later in the year, and whose friendships I am almost equally grateful for — for those new friendships helped me to stop worrying so much about the fact that as we leave college and go our billion different ways, it is impossible to maintain every single friendship we had in college. It reminded me that no matter where you end up in the world, there will never be a shortage of amazing people and the potential for new amazing friendships.

4. Passion is vital.

One of the defining characteristics of my general state of mind during the depression was a general lack of passion for anything — or, more accurately, a lack of ability to properly feel the sense of passion and excitement for the things I knew I should feel passionate about. When I finally discovered I had gotten the fellowship I had wanted more than anything in the world, for instance, I cried. Not out of happiness, but out of frustration for the fact that I didn’t feel happy for the thing I had yearned for for months, the thing that used to keep me awake at night sometimes just out of pure excitement as I imagined how incredible and perfect it would be if I actually got it.

I think it also had something to do with the college bubble I was still in, which made it harder to really think beyond my current surroundings and remember all the things that mattered. It wasn’t really until the fellowship orientation that I was able to finally absorb what it was that I would be embarking on, and remember why I was so passionate about it in the first place. Even in simply meeting the other fellows, and being so inspired by the passion in each one of them, I couldn’t help but feel moved. I almost think that orientation was the turning point for me to finally snap out of whatever was keeping me depressed. There’s just something about being able to feel passion for something relating to the betterment of others that allows you to focus less on yourself and your own limitations.

5. Never underestimate the value of a compliment.

I know this doesn’t sound as big as some of the other lessons, but having felt the significant impact from such a lesson myself this year, I just want it to be something I remember and make use of in the coming years. Perhaps it was the specific context and the state of mind I happened to be in at the time, but I  still can’t believe just how big a difference a compliment can make.  Even as I recall it now, it sounds so simple and meaningless, but a girl I had met at orientation at one point said to me, in a really sincere manner, that she thought I was a funny and candid person. Honestly, in any other situation, this might have just been like any other casual fleeting compliment, in which it is thanked and forgotten as soon as the moment passes, but in this moment, a moment that came after months spent in a delusional state basically hating myself for how boring and worthless I was, the simple words of a new friend acknowledging something positive about me was like a sudden jolt of realization that made me start to question everything I had been telling myself for quite some time.

I realize that not every compliment you give someone will have such a significant effect on them and it is all completely contextual, but you really never know how much your sincere compliment might mean to someone at any particular time, so why not take advantage of all the opportunities you have to let someone know the good that you see in them.

6. There is truly no greater source of happiness than bringing happiness to others.

And finally, a lesson I feel like I continue to learn again and again, on new and deeper levels each time. I think the best way to sum this one up is with another Baha’i quote that I love:

“Be not the slave of your moods, but their master. But if you are so angry, so depressed and so sore that your spirit cannot find deliverance and peace even in prayer, then quickly go and give some pleasure to someone lowly or sorrowful, or to a guilty or innocent sufferer! Sacrifice yourself, your talent, your time, your rest to another, to one who has to bear a heavier load than you — and your unhappy mood will dissolve into a blessed, contented submission to God.”

When all of your thoughts are focused on others, you begin to simply become forgetful of self. And when  you aren’t thinking about yourself, there’s also less chances to put yourself down or focus on all the negative things that might otherwise absorb your thoughts. Trying to rationalize yourself into happiness when you’re feeling any kind of negative emotion typically ends in failure because every person has faults, and it’s easy for anyone to get caught up in these faults when your thoughts are focused inwardly. But when your only aim and desire is to make someone else happy, you can’t help but feel a sense of joy in the mere fact that you are capable of doing something good for someone else. In that, there is peace.

So there it is. 6 lessons that 22 taught me. I apologize for the fact that this long post was so me-centric while ironically talking about how important it is to not think about myself, but more than anything, I just wanted to write these thoughts out and remember them as I embark on 23. For a while, I thought the best way to move forward was to forget the bad moments of the past and just make the most of the future, but with time, I’ve realized that every moment of 22 was crucial to the things I now know, and for that, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

…and since this whole post was all cheesy and reflective, I might as well follow it up with some cheesy sunset photos from my recent trip to Cape Town…


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