Nostalgia is a feeling relating to the past. It is looking back on past events and experiences with fondness and familiarity. Yes, there is no doubt that nostalgia would not exist without memories of the past. But I would argue that that warm happiness derived from those memories has more to do with the present and future than with the past. Nostalgia is created by more than just a memory. It comes from applying present knowledge and future hopes to the past. There is a comfort in seeing that what was once unknown has now been revealed. In seeing solutions that were once a mystery. Even in comparing blissful ignorance with world-wary wisdom. Nostalgia is not produced from a perfect snapshot of the past. It is a memory plus a little, but very important, something extra.
People love to reminisce. My friends and I are still quite young but even we get satisfaction from talking about the good ole days. Except for us youngsters, the good ole days are when we were toddlers. Throughout high school and even still in college, I have noticed that every couple of months, we have the exact same conversation comparing and reliving the TV shows we used to watch as children. I don’t know why we need to discuss it so often. The answers never change but it happens almost like clockwork, regardless. And although all of us are aware of it, no one brings up the fact that we have talked about it numerous times before, because it doesn’t really matter to any of us. We all enjoy bringing up our favorite childhood shows and taking a few minutes to live in those carefree days where the vacuum on Teletubbies was the biggest concern in life.
Similarly, my best friend and I find ourselves taking a few minutes to reflect on our favorite middle and high school memories about once a month. We went to a very small classical school where nothing and no one was normal. We like to remind each other of where we came from and what we accomplished there every now and then. We have a few staples which we always feel the need to talk about. The fact that we were forced to write and defend 20+ page theses. My 16th birthday party on a party bus with a stripper pole. The weirdos who we watched come and go. The drama-filled Brain Bowl trips. The fact that our school didn’t have football but we had Brain Bowl. It was a strange way to grow up. And neither of us wants to actually go back, but the whole experience holds a special place in my heart. I know that it made me who I am today and I wouldn’t change any of it. And thinking about that is what makes me feel good when I look back.
My favorite tradition that my family has was started by my grandfather over 30 years ago. He records every Christmas Day on his video camera and while we open our presents each year, the videos from past Christmases play on the TV in the background. Starting when my mom was 17, I get to see how the family has evolved each year. I get to see the first Christmas my dad spent with my mom. The year my sister appears and then when I pop up four years later. The year the tree fell over, and when I got a concussion falling down the stairs. The first Christmas without my aunt, and the first ones with each of my little cousins. Watching the video from ‘97, I realized that since then, we have added six people…and lost two. The reason that that tradition is so important to me is to see how far we have come. To remember what we have left behind and acknowledge how we have grown, both literally and figuratively. I wasn’t born in 1997 so how can I feel nostalgic about something for which I wasn’t even alive? It’s because the nostalgia doesn’t come from the memory.
Kid TV shows, high school, and Christmas are not exactly all in the same category, but remembering all of them gives me the same feeling. Seeing how far I have come gives me hope for the things that I have yet to do. I can see how I have been shaped by everything in my past. And I have to continually look back because I keep changing. As I grow, so does my wisdom and perspective. Every time I look back, I have the potential to learn something completely new about myself and others. So while it may be dangerous to spend too much time reliving the past, I think it is equally detrimental to deprive yourself of the catharsis and enlightenment that accompanies nostalgia. Because while you are looking back, you might just gain new insight on today and what lies ahead.