Embracing Nostalgia and Making a Move

house-moving-3It’s always very nostalgic when you pack up your belongings and move to a new place. When you’ve been somewhere for a very long time, you become oriented to not only the steady presence of those things in your life,  but their very positions in your house.  How often do we think when we pass that table or see that family photo for the 100th time that it won’t always be there. Someday it will be moved. You don’t much question the positioning of your things and why some things never move the whole time you’ve been there; that is, until you return a few days later and realize that they are all moved elsewhere. It’s disorienting and it’s also sad. I’ve been quite nostalgic lately in the wake of a recent move and I’m always struggling with it, especially now when Thanksgiving is so close.

We are so attached to the familiar and sometimes it takes something mighty to get us out of that familiar setting and into something new.I see that as a very good thing and a step forward. But, how are we supposed to handle such momentous events? I had never realized before what a huge role nostalgia plays in my life. No one ever talks about nostalgia. No one ever explains to us its purpose. Every other emotion has a purpose, but what about nostalgia? Would we have poetry without it? I don’t think so. Would we have songs without it? Sure, because it’s not the only emotion that spurs such writings. The only thing close to a definition that has held up over the years is Wordsworth’s. Didn’t he say in the Preface to “Lyrical Ballads” that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of feelings and emotions recollected in tranquility?” What does it mean to “recollect in tranquility?” Is that even a condition of the 21st century human being any more?

All through our lives we are enjoined to make decisions and act on them. We are told not to look back but forward. People become impatient if we linger on remembering the dead, the death of a romance, or the house we used to live in. Mothers look fondly on the period when their children were small, conveniently forgetting the hell of those days and mistakenly remembering that period as idyllic. Some mothers I’ve known pine inordinately for a time that never was because they can’t forgive themselves for the mistakes they made. They’ve also conveniently forgotten that none of us get a manual when our kids are born. Mistakes are for learning. Still we remember fondly. But, even Paul tells us that we should be  “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13b). Poor Lot’s wife had even a tougher time when she couldn’t resist one last look at the home she’d known probably all her life (Genesis 19:26). All these are supposed to be “bad” examples for us. But what’s so bad about looking back? What’s so awful about nostalgia?

Absolutely nothing according to the latest study.  An article in Newsweek states that that feeling we get when staring at Norman Rockwell paintings wistfully or even thinking fondly of Christmases past is a necessary coping mechanism when we get lonely. Wray Herbert writes:

That’s called nostalgia, and it turns out it’s not an entirely bad thing. In fact, my response to these treacly images may be deep-wired into my neurons, and for good reason. A growing number of psychologists have become interested in this uniquely human emotion, in particular its connection to loneliness and social isolation and emotional resilience. Indeed, some believe that nostalgia may be a powerful psychological tool for fostering mental health, a coping strategy we use to protect ourselves against the existential fear of being alone.

People who are chronically lonely perceive themselves as disconnected from others, especially family and friends; they feel isolated from all the traditional sources of social support. Are lonely people more likely to be nostalgic than others? Is it possible that nostalgia—that sentimental longing for the past—might have a tonic effect on loneliness, buffering against these feelings of isolation?

In times of great upheaval or transition, it turns out that nostalgia is remarkably our constant companion for a very good reason. Herbert goes on to write of an experiment conducted across all age groups that concluded:

It appears that, regardless of age or circumstances, the lonely mind has the ability to protect itself from emotional pain by recruiting romanticized memories of the past…Loneliness, at its pathological extreme, is nothing less than existential dread—terror at being disconnected in the universe. Such fear can lead to disabling anxiety and depression. If nostalgia is an antidote to such fear, Zhou argues, perhaps patients might be taught to recruit sentimental memories as a therapeutic tool for creating a healthful sense of human (here is another link and discussion about the same study)

Many people today just have an inability to cope with being alone and nostalgia protects them from feeling that so keenly. Nostalgia, therefore can be a good thing. It can be great fun when we watch movies about our favorite eras or listen to songs we knew by heart in high school.  There are even radio shows that recall those days many people want to remember, when times were innocent and no one worried excessively about politics or teenagers’ antics. We watch these movies and listen to these songs because it makes us feel good and it connects us to something we were once part of. It lessens the pain even though it feels even more painful for the remembering. Such nostalgia is bound to happen to everyone at some time or another, especially as the Holidays are just around the corner. It’s even worse though, when the Holidays are combined with personal upheaval, such as moving.

So, in the midst of the holidays, as I move from one place to the next and as I turn my entire life upside down, I have to remember not to be so hard on myself for having those feelings that are bound to turn up during stressful times; feelings of coziness, family times, playing games with the kids, putting up decorations in a house that I will no longer live in. I have to remember that my brain is trying to cope with a heart torn apart and perhaps, just once, cut myself some slack. As one very wise friend pointed out to me recently, even the momentous decisions we willfully make and accept as right ones are fraught with emotions that slip in unbidden and take us unaware during our times of tranquility. That’s perfectly alright. Rather than fight what others see as a weak emotion, perhaps embracing nostalgia is more healing than I first thought.

Happy Thanksgiving all you nostalgic Americans out there!