Practicing nostalgia: Looking back to look forward

Albany, NY nostalgia

Nostalgia is an interesting phenomenon. It is a force for going back into our past and pulling out evocative remnants of our memories. In life, we forget as much as we remember, however it’s what we remember that forms us and helps us to make sense of the world.

At a certain age nostalgia takes over. This usually happens when we are less active in the world and are turning inward. Circumstances often dictate this. We are taking time off from life to look backward instead of into the future. We are looking for clues to who and what we have become.

If you have had a long illness, a long vacation, an extended unemployment, a retirement, the death of someone close to you or anything that has taken you out of what you believe to be the normal imperceptible progression of life, then nostalgia can be your enemy or your friend.

Most dramatic life changes happen suddenly and involve a loss of some kind. The past comes rushing in to fill the gap and this experience can be very overwhelming. It is as though we are alone in a foreign land with no direction. To find our way back to ourselves and to the familiar streets of our psyche seems impossible.

This is reason enough to make forays into the foreign territory of nostalgia every once in a while especially when we are most comfortable with our lives: go back to the old neighborhood; sit in front of our childhood home; look at photographs of those who have passed; listen to music that helped form us; reread a book that changed our thinking forever; look up a friend that we haven’t seen in decades; get re-involved in a hobby or activity that we once enjoyed; or revisit places that inspired us at one time.

Nostalgia becomes the powerful force we turn to in order to redefine ourselves in light of our past. The light is bright and constant and there to help us make meaning out of the seeming chaos of those things we often have no control over. With a steady dose of nostalgia we become less fearful of the sudden curveballs that life inevitably throws us.

When we know how we survived, and even thrived, in the past we are more confident that we can do this now and in the future. We meet life on our own terms.

We simply look back to look forward.

Do you control the news or does the news control you?

keith haring
Keith Haring: The Political Line, de Young Museum, San Francisco, Ca. January 2015

The other day a friend was talking about recent news events and was looking to me to hold up my end of the conversation. I failed him miserably since I have been quite out of the loop about recent world and national events for the last month or so. I have not really been reading online news, news magazines and papers or checking my newsfeed and have not been actively participating in “hashing things out” with my politically astute and well-informed friends.

And, I’ve been feeling happier.

To me it’s simple but I always need reminding: happiness is based upon having a positive outlook on life. We can best make changes in our own lives and in the circumstances around us when we feel optimistic. This helps us to feel that we can be effective in making needed changes.

When we are bombarded, day in and day out, with the overwhelmingly negative media accounts of what is going on in the world around us our efforts to maintain our positive outlook are assaulted, our sense of control over events is diminished and we can find ourselves in emotional survival mode.

Ultimately, I have to accept that I cannot control others around me and what happens on the local, national and global stage. What I can control, however, is how I think and how I act. I am at my most effective, paradoxically, when I let go of the outcome and act in small ways that can make a difference. I do this best when I manage the amount of information that comes to me that says that things are hopeless, will never get better and are too complicated to do anything about.

So, I took some time off from the world to concentrate on my own little part of it. I intend to rejoin the newsfeed soon but in a more limited manner. I want to stay informed but I’ll be rationing my time there. It won’t be the first time I’ve learned that this is necessary to my happiness and effectiveness.