Nostalgia: A Beautiful Suffering

Nostalgia can be many things. It’s the feeling of the first spring day when the sun starts to warm your bones after a long winter, reminding you of the endless possibilities of the impending summer. Nostalgia is the song you set to repeat and belted out with the windows down on your first road trip, free from your parents. It’s also the song that was the soundtrack to an early heartbreak, whose lyrics rang truer than even your own words. Nostalgia is passing a stranger who wears the same fragrance as an old love, casting you back into a storm of unfiltered emotion you thought you’d overcome. Much like it’s also the music that repaints a perfect picture of the sunlight catching her eyes in a moment where your entire world was completely calm.

The common definition of nostalgia is a variation of: “A sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” However, this doesn’t quite do the concept justice. It’s better described as an emotional connectedness to part of your younger self. This connection is rekindled, often without warning, by sensory experiences of the surrounding world, unlocking the floodgates to past emotions.

Many view nostalgia as a crippling inertia that should be avoided at all costs. It is incredibly powerful and if given the opportunity, has the potential to stop you dead in your tracks. However, in small doses there’s a certain beauty to it. It can ignite moments of reflection, inspiration, and reconnect us to both our younger self and others.

Creative minds seem more prone to nostalgia because we have a tendency to romanticize the past - not just the good, but the bad, heartbreak and all. We don’t necessarily long for that situation, but rather the raw emotion. Moments of nostalgia take us back to memories of the extremes, heartbreak and bliss, often the best reminders that we’re alive. We certainly prefer the highs, but the lows are just as much a part of life. One without the other leaves us without context or perspective. We can make decisions that allow us to achieve a certain level of equilibrium, but this leaves much to be desired. At times we need to feel the rise and fall of the waves.

Regardless of the sentiment attached, nostalgia leaves us with a strange feeling somewhere between pleasure and the sharp sting of pain. It’s bittersweet. We ache to reconnect with our younger self, which can be for a handful of reasons. The one consistency in these moments is a desire to feel.

If there were such a thing as a purest form of nostalgia, it would be those connections that lead back to childhood. Most of us associate memories of our childhood with innocence and joy. Times before we knew deception, brokenness, or the weight of responsibility. Nostalgia linked to childhood reveals that we were fortunate enough to have one. It shows gratitude and affection for that period of life.

As we grow older, we insist on further complicating our lives. The realization that we can’t turn back the pages and achieve this level of naivety is what hurts. These moments are reminders of how important childhood is and that we should do our best to afford future generations the same privilege.

Nostalgia that leads back to past relationships is similar in the sense that it reconnects us with a younger, more naïve version of ourselves, but can be much different in the range of emotions recalled. This covers the entire spectrum: anger, peace, resentment, forgiveness, happiness, sorrow, and everything in between. We can find pleasure in all these as they relate to love felt, love lost, or the realization that we’ve grown since. There’s a certain satisfaction in realizing lessons, once we’re far enough removed to look back.

The happiness we find in nostalgia that leads to memories of love needs little explanation, as it’s one of our most basic desires. Love lost, on the other hand, is the most intriguing as to how we can possibly be nostalgic for these moments. Most of us don’t regularly desire to feel wrecked. However, sadness and despair are such powerful emotions, that it truly makes us feel. It can bring slight gratification because it’s a reminder of what it’s like to feel something so deeply, proving both our delicateness and resilience.

Nostalgia can stir up any memory under the sun, not just childhood or relationships. It connects us back to achievements, adventures, experiences, friendships, and places; the list is inexhaustible. The triggers for these connections are even more diverse and unique to each of us. The only universal truth to nostalgia is its unusual blend between happiness and melancholy. However, a desire to turn back time and live briefly in that moment isn’t an inherently bad thing. It allows us to revisit a small part of our past and consider what makes us the person we are today.

Moments of nostalgia also offer a powerful tool for creative minds. To create something influential that touches the lives of others, you need to establish an emotional connection in some way. Sometimes it demands that you dig deep and embrace nostalgia to revive the emotion surrounding a situation. If you’re able to peel back the layers and explore why a certain experience has such a strong connection, you might be able to recreate that for others. Briefly immersing yourself allows you to create honestly and potentially strike a chord with someone facing a similar situation or emotion. Moments of nostalgia can offer clarity, a forgotten perspective, or help us connect with those around us.

Unfortunately, we can drown in nostalgia, dwelling long enough that it begins to interfere with the present. Nostalgia can come without warning and with a full head of steam, but it cannot be allowed to consume us for extended periods of time. The present must always be valued more than the past. The past is an important teacher and should never be completely forgotten, but lasting happiness is found in the moment. It’s in the things we’ve done today and the finer details all around us: the colors, emotions, scents, and sounds. The power that nostalgia carries should help inform our present decisions and observations.

Nostalgia should be embraced like an old friend who stops by on occasion but never sticks around too long. It’s a gift that offers a window back to our younger self, the real emotions we felt, and what makes us the person we are today. Be cautious, but appreciate these moments. They can be harnessed for good and inspiration.

Quite simply, nostalgia is a beautiful suffering.