Nostalgia can help us taste life twice

Last week I wrote about looking back in anger and how we can transform this by acknowledging difficult times in life into something that shaped us. Today I want to change sides and look at the more positive side of looking at the past. In my opinion, this quote captures perfectly the phenomenon of nostalgia:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.

Anaïs Nin

This one shows in a simple yet immersive way how humans do experience nostalgia: When an author is writing a book which is not simply a fictional novel, but is one that touches on their personal story, they have to constantly re-frame things and explore the depth of an experience. This makes the writing process a literary retrospection of their personal life. Said author experiences their story twice by first first experiencing it and then writing about it.

When you take a closer look at the quote, the “writing” can also be seen as a symbol for capturing something. This can not only be a story but everyday or special parts of human life. When we experience something, like graduation, going on vacation, spending time with friends, we take pictures of it, of that moment in our lives. We might say “This one’s for the books!”. In a way that is the case: Later, when we are older, we want to look back and these pictures can help us remember and understand what we experienced, saw and got to know in our life (so far). Just like Brian Collins said: “Life is lived in the moment but it’s understood by looking backwards”. It is especially helpful when we are going through a rough patch or darker days. That’s when hope is needed most. We need to know that these lows are part of life but there also will be lighter, happier days again.

At this point, you also have to be careful to not to pass over into ongoing melancholy. In one way, melancholy is a necessary part of human life which allows us to get a better understanding of other emotions like joy or happiness. It is okay to feel sad for a while about i.e. a phase of life having come to an end. Courtney stephens phrased it in a very beautiful way in his lesson in melancholy: “To understand the sadness of the trees losing their leaves in the fall is to more fully understand the cycle of life that brings flowers in the spring”. Or in other words, when something goes, something new will come. However, in cases where melancholy is going on for a longer period of time, that feeling can become harmful when it consumes your present and even develop to depression. Then there tend to arise thoughts of “Those days are over” or “Will I ever be this happy again?”, “I feel hopeless”. I can assure you that it is possible to feel hope again. Please seek help or support if you or someone you know is going through these feelings.
Nostalgia is also a way of looking at the past longingly but the crucial difference is that nostalgia can be used in a more positive way. It is possible to be nostalgic without being melancholic. Cheyne Gallarde talked about this in a TED talk. He said that, opposed to the widely seen negative connotation of nostalgia, it can actually be a significant part of our lives, if we use it wisely. In our life, we all have many things like books, songs, smells or objects that can conjure up the past. Whatever these things are to you personally; “nostalgia gives our lives texture. It reminds us that we are valuable people, that we’ve led meaningful lives”. So by for example coming across a certain smell that reminds you of a particular place (proust phenomenon) or a song that reminds you of a person, you reflect on your life in an embracing way. You choose look fondly at the past with appreciation and thoughts like “I am gratful to have experienced this” or “I am grateful for this person in my life”. With nostalgia, we appreciate the past, allow ourselves to enjoy a little guidance but also don’t let ourselves be weight down by the fact that the past is over. After all, we can’t play god and change our human evanescence. But what we can do is go forth with eager eyes and let ourselves be moved by what we have and will experience along the way.

Title picture:
Inception (quote from Gwen’s speech in “The Amazing Spiderman 2”)

My sources:
– Stephens, C. (2014). A brief history of melancholy. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8li-3pRrA5Y> [Accessed 10 August 2022].
– Gallarde, C. (2015). The Power Of Nostalgia. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJZWcKOIZMo> [Accessed 10 August 2022].

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