For a variety of personal reasons, I have never been a particularly nostalgic person, except in the sense of negative nostalgia spoken of by writers such as Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, in her novel A Civil Campaign . The tendency of people to view the past as some sort of glorious time free of difficulty and problems has never been appealing because I have never known a time free of immense difficulty, high anxiety, and problems, going back to my earliest life. Often I wonder if this is a source of weakness or whether it is a source of strength. It can be, after all, immensely encouraging to draw strength from glorious times in the past, and it is an aid to optimistic tendencies to recognize that the fact that times have been good at one point in the past means that times could be well in the future, a source of hope that cannot be drawn by those of us who have never seen good times to begin with. The memory of the glorious harvest of fall or the heat of summer can help one endure the melancholy gloom of the dark winter and look forward to the green shoots of the spring that is yet to come in the knowledge that life and warmth will eventually return. Woe be to someone who has only known dark nights of the soul, punctuated only by the occasional false dawn.
For most people, as difficult as it may seem, these are the good old days that will eventually be immortalized in our own memories and in our own reflections, long after the day-to-day events of our lives have been forgotten and we only see what has stood the test of time. Assuming, of course, that we have lived a life free of harrowing trauma, an assumption that does not hold for everyone, most times of life possess the materials for nostalgia even for lives that are of a common and ordinary nature. The climbing of trees or riding of bikes or the hiking through creation or the sandlot games that were the attempts to cure childhood boredom can easily take on the air of adventure when viewed in retrospect. Long after the tedium of homework or the heartbreaks of unrequited crushes are forgotten, the intensity of teenage life can imbue that time with a sense of freedom in that period when privileges increased but the responsibilities of adulthood had not yet arrived. Young adulthood can be remembered fondly for the narrative of progress in achieving higher education and finding a good job and a loving spouse and starting one’s family long after the days of ramen noodles and tedious gruntwork have been forgotten by many. Assuming that one has achieved a modicum of success in one’s personal goals and suffered no massive disasters in one’s personal life, the conventional way that life is lived provides many opportunities to look back on life as being mostly good, even if one is aware that it has not been perfect.
Truth be told, it does not require a great deal to allow most people to live lives of fundamental contentment. So long as we have a loving spouse, supportive and united parents, responsive children, the encouragement of friends, and professional and institutional associates who give us respect and honor, the ordinary ups and downs of life are not so dramatic as to disturb most people in the knowledge that life has been good to us, better than we deserve, with corresponding gratitude and enjoyment as a result. These fairly minimal conditions, which ought not to be so difficult to find in life, are what allow us to think of any time as the good old days, for most people have little awareness of larger concerns, and so long as our own personal lives are going well enough, and we have at least some hope that the future will continue on as the past has been and as the present is, there need not be any despair in the life to come. Even a life that has been somewhat disappointing but not disastrous allows for the existence of nostalgia because one can look back on a good past, even if one’s present is not fully satisfying.
Is nostalgia a bad thing? In many ways, nostalgia, or its dark twin negative nostalgia, result from the uneven way that life is remembered. We remember the past in light of the present, and events that are particularly exciting or traumatic are remembered by most people long after the mundane affairs are forgotten. The process of nostalgia can be remedied if one has recorded enough of the mundane details of life that they are remembered, in which case one is not likely to feel nostalgic at all, nor necessarily dissatisfied with a present that has a persistent but manageable amount of stress. Yet it is all too easy to forget, if we are among those who have a healthy amount of life that has provided us with the raw materials for a comforting sense of nostalgia, that other people may not have a sense of nostalgia at all. How are we to draw the strength and optimism we need to face the difficulties of present life and the uncertainties of the future if we have no good old days to look back on? And how are we to live with that handicap in such a way that does not hinder achieving our present goals or achieving a better future, and make us an object of pity and scorn for those around us? Happier are those who do not have to pay attention to such problems.
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