Perhaps it’s the wine, or perhaps it’s the great meal, but when it’s time to give out the gifts under the Christmas tree, it’s so easy to remember similar times in the past, and to remember how the gifts of the past years have also given people happiness. And so it is with nostalgia – it is the gift we give to ourselves, so we may remember all the good times across the years. Even for a moment, this year’s Christmas will become Every Christmas, a time when all times leave you with a smile on your face, and an overall pleasant feeling of knowing it has all happened before – and will happen again.
Whenever the end of the year rolls by, the combined holidays, the cold weather, and the feeling of having to look back at what you’ve done in the past year has often made a person more sentimental, and, as they say, the past look like it’s seen through a pleasant haze.
We know that in many cases, our own minds are just glossing over some of the unhealthy parts of our own history, but the question is: Is nostalgia overrated, or is it an important gift that our own mind gives to ourselves?
The Past, revisited
But what is nostalgia, really? And why do we indulge in it, however reluctantly?
For some nostalgia is an emphasis on remembering the more pleasant memories. These moments are usually triggered by familiar sights, smells, and even sounds. Some people say that it is the opposite of trauma, in that rather than creating a feeling of fear of blocking of the memory, nostalgia strengthens pleasant memories even more, making them a source of strength or inspiration when a person is encountering personal difficulties. However, it’s important to remember that like many things, nostalgia can have a dark side to it, and one that most people do not think about.
The rose-tinted glasses
Traumatic memories, although they are negative experiences, also have positive uses – for one, if the memory is repressed, it allows the person to operate at some level of efficiency even while the mind is still trying to sort out what happened. For another, unpleasant memories can often drive people to either act on them to make sure that they never experience similar situations again.
But with nostalgia, our rose-tinted glasses can also be an issue. Nostalgia can keep us paralyzed when we have too much of it. In large doses, it’s like being lost in your own memories, or simply being caught in a feedback loop of trying to find ways to make the pleasurable moments in the past come back. In some cases, this can be a negative reinforcement, particularly if the memory being reinforced can be harmful to others, or causes a person to act in ways that are detrimental to his or her own development.
In some cases, it even makes people stubborn about certain ideas –and this can make people ignore their own instincts about certain situations. A person who is stubborn for nostalgic reasons can become hopelessly unable to accept logical input, even from friends.
Finally, nostalgia, like trauma, can be very selective, and can even work in conjunction with trauma, serving as a more pleasant way to remember only what you need. After all, you don’t remember the bad times with pleasure, unless there was a pivotal event that you need to remember to keep your personality intact. Nostalgia, then, is a way of erasing “useless” memories by focusing on those that give pleasure, or a sense of satisfaction.
Hope, or Hopeless
Perhaps one of the true powers of nostalgia is that it can trigger the feeling of hope. For some of us, this past year has been less than ideal. But when you look back to remember the good things that happened in the past year, chances are, you’re also thinking of events from other years that have definitely brought you much joy. And because of these pleasant memories, many people are driven to work harder.
Once you have that spark of hope that things will get better, you can proceed to set things right in your own family or circle of friends. And nostalgia of that magnitude, it rarely comes out unless a person is feeling hopeless.
We instinctively know that when tied to or triggered by a gift, nostalgia is very powerful. It can be as simple as an inexpensive gift – a trinket – whose symbolism will trigger memories. It can also be as elaborate as a gift based on good memories in the past, like an old toy, or perhaps even something as simple as a repaired watch.
The Holidays, why we celebrate
Christmas – or its equivalent celebration at this time of the year, seems tailor-made for the feeling of nostalgia. The ritualization of remembering a core belief can, in itself, trigger waves of nostalgia.
For some people, this can lead to what some have called the “Christmas Blues,” since while the memories – the nostalgia – for times past can be wonderful, it can also emphasize the current issues of the person, such as being alone on another country, thinking about the noche buena dinner that he or she won’t experience.
For others, it is also a great time for just sitting back, and having fun conversations with friends and family, on all the good things that have happened in the past year, as well as retelling each other stories of all the times when something good or funny happened.
And let’s be honest, many reconciliations between friends and family members would never have worked if people weren’t nostalgic for the “good old days.”
That is nostalgia in a nutshell, perhaps – to remember fondly even what really wasn’t so much fun when it was happening, perhaps to make us realize that even if the actual experience was unpleasant, that it was something important for us.
And finally, as we remember all the good times, we close the door one last time for this year, and at the same time open a new one, for the coming year. And we hope, as we come to the end next year, that we will have added another layer of good memories that we can be nostalgic about.
A toast, and perhaps another, as we prepare to live another year. And there it is, why nostalgia is so important: even if it unjustly removes the bad from our memories, it emphasizes all the good things we have experienced.
Originally posted by Richard Ramos at Nostalgia — the best gift and, sometimes, the worst