I was talking with a friend today about nostalgia. He was not attracted to it; I admitted its pull. Here’s a definition: “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.”1 The definition seems appropriate. Thinking of a street and a neighborhood, of the trees and the people, of a certain moment in the solar systems long journey around the center of the Milky Way, fills me with joy; thinking of how it has all vanished, fills me with sadness.

Do I desire to go back? For a few hours maybe, to see that world from the outside, to see if my memory is accurate, to experience its beauty. But not to be in it, from the inside, as a ten or twenty year old. Who would want to actually be young again, to return permanently? Fools maybe, but no others. The wise love that the past was once home, that is molded them, but they no longer desire to live there. As Tennyson said:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

Would I live my life over again? Maybe, if the other option was oblivion and I could learn more the second time around. But not to live in Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. 

I will continue to reminisce, but I reject traveling  back in time even for a moment. If I did I might be disappointed; the past might not be as good as I remember. And then I would have lost something special … good memories, however flawed.


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4 thoughts on “Nostalgia

  1. I tend to agree with you. I am very reminicient. Though, I think it really depends on the life you experienced. There are people I’ve known, almost the entirety of my life, that if I were them I would not be so nostalgic.

    I would go so far as to say that I wouldn’t mind hitting a rewind button to 15 as long as I was able to take my knowledge with me. I don’t have regrets, the knowledge I have came from the mistakes I’ve made but, I wouldn’t mind a few do-overs.

    Maybe nostalgia is a natural, evolutionary trait that helps us make better decisions as we get older. Even if our nostalgia is is not a correct memory it is usually favorable. Is it possible that our favorable nostalgia helps us make more favorable, confident decisions in the future.

  2. You are right; if you had a mostly memories then there would be no joy in reminiscing. And I also agree I’d go back if I could take my 60 year old experience to my 20 year old body, yeah I’d go for that. I’d definitely take do overs. I think it is so stupid when people say “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Really? Then you didn’t learn anything. Your final idea is fascinating and I’ve never thought about it. Off the top of my head it does seem there would be some survival advantage for minds that replayed the past and learned from the replying. Of course explaining advanced traits like this is tricky and critics say it is hard to explain all of our tendencies as bestowing some survival advantage. And there is something about the narrative or story we tell ourselves that impacts what we do now. I’ll have to think on all this more. So much to think about. But thinking’s fun.

  3. Can think of two valid reasons to be nostalgic.
    #1. Is obvious: we were younger in the past.

    #2. The world was less entropic.

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