What I Think About When I Think About Nostalgia
Things we yearn for
The word “nostalgia” is made up of two Greek words: nostos, meaning “return”, and algos, “suffering”. So, nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased (or unappeasable) yearning to return.
A past that doesn’t exist anymore
There’s an old Vietnamese proverb that goes, “People say that time goes by; time says that the people go by.”
It’s not just a particular place or person that can make us nostalgia, it can also be a past version of the person or place. Saudade, for example, is Portuguese for the profound nostalgic longing for an absent beloved person or thing. There’s a particular type of sadness you feel when you catch up with someone you miss and realize that the version of them you were once friends with doesn’t exist anymore.
You won't ever find the same person twice, not even in the same person.
But, other times, with old friends who haven’t changed, reconnecting with them is one of the best feelings in the world. They bring out a part of you that you thought you outgrew because ‘life went on’. As we grow, we keep every age inside of us—kind of like a matryoshka doll or rings in a tree. Younger versions of yourself never truly disappear, they get frozen in memories, and get defrosted by specific people, specific inside jokes, and specific places and scents.
Catching up with old friends that you used to see everyday is like an archeological excavation of your own character development because they dig up an older version of yourself that’s been buried with time. In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig coined the word “lilo” to describe a friendship that can lie dormant for years only to be picked right back up instantly, as if no time had passed since you last saw each other. I think lilo is one of the most heartwarming feelings in the world.
Ignorance of something or someone far away
The Spanish verb for feeling nostalgic, anorar, comes from the Catalan enyorar, which is derived from the Latin ignorare, meaning to be unaware of, uninformed, or to miss. In this nuance, nostalgia seems to be something like the pain of ignorance; the greater the exile, the more you don’t know what’s going on while you’re away, the more you yearn to be back together with something or someone.
Sometimes, when recalling dear childhood memories, certain friends would reappear in my head. And I’d wonder what they’re up to now—how they’re doing, if they ever overcame that odd quirk kids once made uncomfortable spectacle out of on the playground, if their favorite food is still the crispy chicken sandwich, whether or not they’re dating, and what big changes have happened since we last saw each other. And when I do get to catch up with someone like this—someone I haven’t seen in a long time—I typically begin the conversation with something like, “I hope you’ve been well all these years.”
When you are far away from a person or a place, the fact that you don’t know how they’re doing is enough to trigger feelings of nostalgia.
If you’ve ever lived abroad or have situated a new home far away from your family, thinking about your hometown can make you feel homesick.
In English, we call it “homesickness.” In German, heimweh. In Dutch, heimwee. But this reduces the pain of yearning down to its spatial dimension. In Icelandic (one of the oldest European languages), longing for home is called heimprá, but nostalgia in a general sense—for a place in a particular past—is designated by a separate word: söknuður. We can be homesick for a person or a period in time as much as a physical location.
One can say that it was the burden of ignorance that drove Odysseus back home. The king of Ithaca lived a paradise there in Calypso’s island, a life of ease and delight. There he shared a bed with Calypso for seven years, yet, not a single day went by where he did not think about his wife, Penelope—how the other men could’ve courted her, dishonored her, how they’d murder his son and vandalize his palace. What went on in Ithaca while he was in exile?
Calypso offered the king an eternal stay in pleasure paradise, yet he still chose to embark on a dangerous homecoming. He chose ordinariness over immortality, adventure over nirvana, a faithful wife over a divine mistress. In Book Five of The Odyssey, Odysseus tells Calypso: “As wise as she is, I know that Penelope cannot compare to you in stature or in beauty. And yet the only wish I wish each day is to be back there, to see in my own house the day of my return!”
Defeating the Trojans is just the first half of his resume; his cunning war strategy is one reason why Western literature exalts him as a hero. The second reason is because of his loyalty: Odysseus isn’t just a king, he’s a son, a husband, and a father. Most importantly, he was no demigod. He was fully human—rare for such a Greek mythological protagonist. And just like the rest of us, nothing brings a soldier home like a painful longing for his family (think of all the military marching songs composed in the last century about men thinking wistfully about their sweethearts back home, and how that the purpose of a military marching song is supposed to motivate young men in war).
Longing for a time that never existed
There’s a strange type of nostalgia that arises when we think fondly of a future that hasn’t happened yet, or a fantasy reality that happens in parallel. A snippet of a life that exists only in memory. A utopia that exists outside of time. An aching desire to return to a figment of our imagination.
We want to imagine a future spent with someone we fancy—how many children we would have with them, what the color of our wall would be, what our morning routine would be like, what make of car we’d drive, and so on.
We can love a memory of something, even if it’s totally fictitious. An impression of it. An idea of it. A perception of it. An entire story we’ve constructed in our own heads based on one interaction we’ve had. And we may even love that more than the actual object that’s producing our sense of nostalgia.
This is what Jake and Brett felt at the back of the taxi at the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Or why Daisy remained as Missus Buchanan despite secret visits to Jay Gatsby’s mansion where she and Gatsby reignited their youthful dalliance.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
“Yes,” [Jake] said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
— From the last page of the Hemingway mentioned above, which always leaves me with a soft sadness that lingers longer than permitted whenever I read it.
When moving on from a heartbreak, many realize that they were more in love with the memories than the person they had made those memories with. We can cling too tightly to our own narrative sometimes; we can be too obsessed with the past. We can be troubled if we fall in love with the idea of someone instead of who they actually are.
We can fall in love with our own imagination, projected onto reality. That’s how we can feel nostalgic for things that have never actually happened.
Why does nostalgia hurt?
Love is felt most when it is about to leave. And if it is felt again for a second time, it often appears as something undistinguishable from pain. The reason why nostalgia is tinged with sadness is because as you feel it, you also acknowledge that you’ll never get to experience that ‘something’ for the first time ever again.
We can recall the past and live through those moments as memories, but, we can never truly relive those moments, even if reenacted with the same people at the same place. As Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” And so, nostalgia becomes the closest imitation of reliving a memory.
We always ask ‘where did the good times go?’ without reflecting on the possibility that this very moment, right now, is what we will one day be nostalgic for. There’s a particular phenomenon where one can gain a sudden but ephemeral awareness that a present experience is going to become a poignant memory. But this is not guaranteed to happen.
We tend to take good times for granted. We move as a rower propels his boat: facing backwards. We can always see where we’ve been, but not where we’re going. That’s why your boat is always going to be steered by a younger version of you; every first time can only be a first time once. Now is the oldest you’ve ever been and the youngest you’ll ever be.
If only we knew how much (or how little) time we have left with someone we care about, we might appreciate every moment we spend with them a little more. If we knew in advance which days were going to be our happiest, we might be prepared to enjoy those special days with a bit more effort. But why must we wait for some oracle to tell us which person is going to leave us first or which day is going to be our happiest?
If we make every moment a bit more precious and take things one day at time, maybe we’ll leave this world with fewer regrets. And, if we didn’t manage to make fewer mistakes, at least we enjoyed every day as if we were granted some magical portal to visit a past we know we will miss.
Thank you for reading,
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