Last semester I took an English literature course here at UVic. My professor—the very likeable Andrew Murray—was discussing nostalgia as a common literary theme. He said nostalgia can be described as “the desire for desire”. We long to feel emotions as sharply as we did when we were younger. He added that in this context, his students may be too young to have ever experienced nostalgia. Dumbfounded, I looked around the room. Does nostalgia have an age requirement?
George Ball, an American diplomat, said “nostalgia is a seductive liar”. Like a talented seductress, nostalgia will rope you in and cause you to lose sight of reality. It will present you with a sugar-coated version of the past: sweet enough to dampen the present and colourful enough to cast a shadow on the future. It is often portrayed as the grown-up’s burden, but I knew nostalgia before I had ever heard of seduction. I knew nostalgia before I had the articulation to describe my emotions. Even then—like a dishonest seductress—nostalgia was feeding me lies.
My mother taught me the word when I was seven years old. I was explaining my mood that day. I was the kind of child who did not want to grow up. I put childhood on a pedestal. Even when I was a child, I put my earlier childhood on a pedestal. I incessantly held on to distant memories: that fun snow day a year prior, that perfect summer I had before starting school. There was always a memory to cling to. My mother told me the emotion I was describing was “nostalgia.” This new word gave me validation. If there’s a word for it, then that means I’m not the only one.
Two years earlier, it was the night before my fifth birthday. I couldn’t sleep. At that age, lack of sleep is usually due to excitement: birthday gifts, attention, and one more year of age! For me, the new age was terrifying. I cried. I stood at the top of the stairs and tried to explain why I was upset. I spoke with my oddly raspy voice. “I don’t want to grow up” I said. “I wish I was still three!” There it was, that early childhood that I yearned for. My mother reminded me that my birthday party was coming up. I knew the party would be fun. Nostalgia stepped aside, and excitement finagled its way into the forefront of my emotions. I slept.
Looking back, I recognize that the nostalgia I felt was fueled by fabrication. At that time, my physical health was at its worst. In one year, I went through three episodes of nearly fatal respiratory failure, I also had major surgery to fix a birth defect that had affected my breathing since birth. I had no idea that I was about experience good health. Blinded, I could not see much excitement in my future. I idealized the past by default. I looked back fondly and seemed to forget the adversity. When scholars suggest that young people don’t experience nostalgia, I wonder if they, too, have been blinded. Maybe they have forgotten the first time they felt nostalgic. As they romanticize their youth, maybe they picture a fictitious time when nostalgia did not exist.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve overcome that blindness. My physical health is better now than I had ever thought possible. I’ve had many positive experiences and I have been very fortunate. I now accept that parts of my childhood were not euphoric at all. There is comfort in that realization because I know life has more to offer. Dominating nostalgia has been a twofold process: remembering the reality of the past and realizing the possibilities of the future. Our society presents youth as life’s golden stage but sometimes the past is given too much credit. Nostalgia puts that deceptive gold finish over our memories. The lustre can be blinding. If you open your eyes up to the potential of the future, you might see that tomorrow can put yesterday to shame.
Thanks for reading!