Almost all of us felt this sensation of nostalgia in our lives, where we retreat from the chaotic real world into the recesses of our memories, where non-existent people and things are still retained, where things never die, and where significant events are still alive, somewhere deep in us. Neuroscientists nowadays define nostalgia as a mental phenomena with a physical basis, in which the amygdala, the seat of emotions in a part of our brain called the limbic system, is activated by external stimuli that evokes a certain aspect of our memory which is normally associated with sentimentality, or a longing for the past.
But all this is just a simplification of one of the most complicated of human emotions. In nostalgia, one does not just relive the past through the transmission of neurotransmitters, or the activation of a brain part. In nostalgia, one longs for a memory, a ghost, a phantom, that cannot and will not exist anymore. As times move on, things and places and people change. Time is the one true destroyer which obliterates everything in its path, as it moves ever forward into the mysterious future, in its self-driven quest for exploration. History is but a collection of everything that is not, a museum of the deceased.
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And it is in nostalgia, that one temporarily abandons the future in order to live in the past, to long for the “good old days”, in which History is worshiped like a God, where memories regained its significance as the one true witness of what makes us us. Memory – with all its imperfections and all its inaccuracies, where one does not just record the past, but reinvent it – is all we have, for without it, we will loose our foundation of our being. Recall the movie “Memento”, where the protagonist is an anterograde amnesiac, which cannot form new long-term memories, and can only remember a few fragments of his past life before his wife is killed. It is precisely because he can’t form new memories which lead to his fragmentary existence, where he can’t even be sure of who he is, and the correctness of his actions. He is, essentially, a broken man, a man without an identity. Because it is our memory that defines us.
Nostalgia is often misunderstood as something that contradicts with our health, that which is an anathema that must be eradicated as soon as possible. In our progressive society, nostalgia is seen as an obstacle to advancement, an obsession of the senile, the old, the conservative. But it is in truth, more than that, for without nostalgia, life would lose some of its colors, the memories that permeate the living. Imagine a society in which none will look back on the past when everyone based their sole ideals on progression. People will disregard the love for our planet, for our heritage, for life itself. And we can see a glimpse of it nowadays actually: the impulsive spending on fuel consumption, the materialistic production of goods on dwindling resources. Much like what the movie “Wall-E” depicted, if the process of ceaseless manufacturing does not stop and reconsider its priorities, all will be lost. Without nostalgia, we lose our footing.
It is precisely in nostalgia that we cope ourselves with negative feelings, that we feel warmth and serenity through fleeting images from the past. Our memories of the past might be an image where we are surrounded by people who are close to us, as humans are rarely alone, and it is these memories that reminds us of the interconnectedness of beings. We feel better for ourselves, and we find a sense of profound existential meaning in life as we relive the memories that are the most significant for us. Of course, maladaptive nostalgia can be detrimental to our health as we are stuck to the past without a vision of the morrow. But such things, as in everything else, must be taken with caution, and in Buddha’s wise advise, everything is best if done in a middle dose, if we follow the middle path.
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One can see the sentimentality and nostalgic reflections embedded upon the major works of literature and philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Emil Cioran, Arthur Schopenhauer, Lord Byron, William Blake, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, and many more who were involved in the Romantic movement, who revolted against the implications of the Enlightenment, which placed the priority of science on a pedestal. For these Romantic writers and poets long for a past that is purer, where humans lived in relative naivete, without the obsession and delusion of a progression of society and civilization. Even movies nowadays, such as Chaplin’s masterful “Modern Times” and “City Lights”, “The Godfather” or “Forrest Gump”, even the relatively new “Wall-E”, all displayed an equal sentimentality for a simpler past.
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Nostalgia then is not a simple emotion which can be explained away in a few sentences, or by an explanation that is based on scientific speculation. Like all other emotions, one must experience it in order to understand it. And like all other emotions, words and languages are inadequate to fully verbalize the full extent of its impact on our life. To tell another that “I feel angry” or “I feel nostalgic” means nothing to them, for they do not know what nostalgia means to us. No two person’s emotion can be the same, and with that, words are but a universal category for what we experienced, and like all things, it is lost in translation.
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But for all it’s worth, nostalgia is an emotion that is beautiful in its complexity, in that it involves our entire being in its experience. And it is complex in its beauty, for even we ourselves can’t fully comprehend its mechanics. So it is enough that we know that such an emotion exists, and that we can experience it. As the past contains beautiful images, it is all I have in times of destitution. For in the blue skies and the green patch of grass in my grandparents’ house, where the aroma of freshly cooked food wafted through the entire compound of the house, with my grandmother’s shouts for us to have our lunch, and our running and darting across the nooks and crannies of the estate, at least I know it is beautiful.