The Grief of Nostalgia

Christmas candles lit, England

nostalgia (origins) – a return to grief

It’s too early to think about Christmas.  I know that, but I feel myself sinking into a longing for it.  I know where that leads, and I’ve written about this before.

My seventh Christmas was a real sweet spot for me as far as Christmases go.  There was a moment that couldn’t have lasted more than 10 minutes that ranks as one of the greatest memories of my life.  I was in my front living room in our house.  We had a live tree with presents under it.  My mom had just given me permission to light the candles by myself for the first time.  An album was playing on the hi fi.  I believe it was somewhere in the neighborhood of a Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians Christmas album.  I was by myself.

I can’t tell you exactly what made that moment so perfect, and I’ve tried to recreate it with the smells and the music and the sights of it.  Scotch tape, burning candles, cedar tree, cozy music, low lights.  But ultimately I fail, because that house had a unique smell.  That candle  had a unique smell.  The weather had a unique smell.  That town has a unique smell.  And seven-years-old is irretrievable.  I have ached over this.

Nostalgia is really a kind of suffering.  It triggers depression for me.  It is a rejection of an unsatisfying present moment in exchange for the ghosts of better days.  Those who live in nostalgia are said to live in the past, but the past is dead.  The past does not really exist anymore, so a chronic nostalgia junky doesn’t even live in the past; they live in the present with no awareness of it.  They do not experience it at all.  It’s a longing for something that no longer exists.  It is a grief.  Those of us who suffer from nostalgia are grieving the loss of what we perceive to be better times.

It’s good to have remembrances and traditions.  But I’m talking about obsession.  Have you ever had a family member insist on a tradition that no one else likes?  They get angry at anyone who tries to disrupt it.  This is not happy nostalgia.  This is painful nostalgia.  It is hurting that person and the people around them.

There’s a movie called Cinema Paradiso in which a boy falls in love with a girl in his little Italian village.  She moves away and he does not know to where.  He spends his life trying to find her and living off the memories of her.  There is a theme in the musical score which represents his longing.  He suffers from powerful nostalgia.  When he finally finds her, they are middle-aged.  She is married.  They drive off together and have sex in the car, and that is all.  She must return to her home.  All of his pain and suffering are expressed in an ultimately empty act of lovemaking.  There is no closure for him.  He is empty, and the theme plays on.

I became obsessed with this movie and the song.  I lived off of his nostalgia as if it was my own.  I know that I should never watch the movie again.  It would trigger a depression that could last for weeks.  There are songs and movies and books that I can no longer experience without consequences.

But I have discovered how to battle nostalgia.  I seek out the moment.  I smell, see, hear, taste, and touch what is in front of me.  I make new traditions.  I watch new movies and listen to new music.  The truth is that what I long for in the past are moments in which I was fully present.  Kids know how to do this.  That may have something to do with why our most powerful memories are from our childhood.  We long for grandma’s peach pie, that one Christmas with a rare snow, the songs our parents danced to…because when we kids, we were fully immersed in those moments.  But we are just as capable of experiencing powerful moments in the present which we will one day look back on with happiness.  We will overcome the grief of nostalgia.

2 thoughts on “The Grief of Nostalgia

  1. Yes. Negative nostalgia seems to correlate with unhappy feelings about the present; particularly a feeling that now is not as good as then. It can be hard to find a grateful heart in the midst of it; mourning the loss times past may ease grief.


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