As we mature and retire, time puts all things in the right place. No man is born wise. – Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Journeys into the past have become more frequent with age, as if the center of gravity has shifted and is pulling backwards with increasing force. The chronology of the past years, the gift of life given by nature and shaped by the mind, has led to a mental shift that cannot be denied. Nostalgia creeps in imperceptibly and the year of birth is reflected on the black background of the inner space that only I could see when everything calms down and the flicker of daily activities subsides. I realize that the brain is a time machine and without that ability, it would always live in the present, frozen in a narrow gap of consciousness. But because of the extraordinary brain characteristic, I immerse myself in the spirit of time and place from the distant personal past. I enter the faded existence of the five-year-old, the first memories like flashes that briefly illuminate the darkness of oblivion.
Flash: throwing the children’s magazine Kekec from the balcony; delight.
Flash: playing on a nearby hill, winter, wet, red in the face, mother taking off my clothes; joy.
Flash: brother and I in the basement, pretend doctors with syringes, give injections to girls; mischief.
Flash: evening, father and I returning home, full moon, I thought of planet Earth; curiosity.
I look at the black and white photographs taken out of the dusty album. Loved ones look back at me. The feeling of coziness and the smile on my face warm me on a cool autumn day awakening closeness and belonging to that time and space, nostalgia. A comforting emotion when I was accepted and loved unconditionally. Impressions of the past and longing for the “good old days” that entice the promise of a simpler, healthier, and more humane life. The connection with mother and brother and the days when we had conversations about those years and analyzed in detail the individual and collective memories provoked by images made or imagined.
It is obvious that in addition to physical time, which we measure by clocks, there is also psychological time that refers to the subjective experience of time. If we think about the passage of time from this point of view, we generally see the past in a light that seems logical from today’s perspective. We choose what we remember to correspond to the current state of mind. Some researchers say that the key to emotional health is the way we deal with the past. Orientation to that time perspective gives a sense of personal continuity and a stable identity, a sense of rootedness, in which the past experiences come to life and become a part of the present. Most research suggests that nostalgia is aligned with or correlated with prosocial emotions such as compassion, empathy, and altruism. Thinking about the days that are no more, offers life lessons that we adapt and use to cope with the inevitable changes we are going through and serve as an incentive for a more optimistic approach to the future.
My initial thinking about nostalgia is that it reaches its peak in old age, but research has not confirmed that. Young adults are most susceptible to it. Most studies concluded that the reason for this increase is related to the transition during that key developmental period where a person is with one foot in childhood and the other is step away from the independence and responsibility of adulthood. Because of that, many have anxiety expressed with a thought whether the future would be as beautiful and rosy as the past was. A similar but different nostalgia occurs in the elderly, who face changes due to retirement, health problems, loss of loved ones, etc. and for these or related reasons become nostalgic for happier times.
If we want to broaden our perspective on this topic then I will turn to Philip Zimbardo who in his book The Time Paradox identifies six independent categories, two related to the past, present, and future. As for the past, they are a positive and a negative category; the present is either fatalistic or hedonistic; and the future, ordinary or transcendental. Of course, nostalgia, if we define it as the longing feeling for the past, belongs to the positive category of the past, where Nietzsche’s famous saying “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” describes this attitude well. People who have experienced negative events, but remember them in a positive way, become more resilient and optimistic. This perspective contains unspoken wisdom that wants to tell us that while we cannot change the events that have taken place, we can certainly change our attitudes and beliefs about them. Zimbardo affirms, “Attitudes toward past events are more important than the events themselves.” His research demonstrates that people with a positive outlook on the past are less aggressive, depressed, or anxious. In addition, they are more conscientious, creative, energetic, friendly, happy, and confident. This positivity is crucial in the development of gratitude towards the present. It is obvious that reinterpreting the past in a positive way is good for health so instead of being controlled by negative events from the past, we climb into the saddle and ride the horse of the apocalypse that obeys our commands.
One of the most successful methods for transforming the past is described in the book Getting Past Your Past, by Francine Shapiro, using therapeutic methods of eye movements desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Releasing negative emotions, beliefs and memories and moving forward does not mean that the past is forgotten – it just becomes more pleasant and integrated with far-reaching positive benefits for mental and physical health. Thus, it is possible to put the past in its “place” and avoid excessive and obsessive rumination. Forgiving yourself and others removes the “Sisyphus boulder” from the shoulders and allows you to fully breathe the fresh air of freedom. Even Freud wants to help with the words, “But the less a man knows about the past the more insecure must prove to be his judgment of the future”. It is as if he wants to tell us to use the power of the past to create a secure base from which to imagine the future and make healthier, better, and more meaningful decisions. With mindful intention fill yourself with memories of happy times in order to become immune against the intrusion of negative thoughts and thus create a path to a happier future. The perspective of a positive past gives us roots. A center of self-affirmation that connects us with ourselves over time and space, provides a sense of continuity of life and enables connection with family, tradition, and cultural heritage. One of the healthiest forms of nostalgia throughout human history has always been to link the previous generation with the next. In this way, it is passed on to the next generation, the best from the past. Since differences can cause divisions, nostalgia is binding because it does the opposite, it unites.
In this text, I focus my attention on nostalgia as a representative of the positive perspective of the past, but we should not completely ignore the perspectives of the present and the future, because human happiness depends on all three perspectives. If we agree that nostalgia is important and useful, we may also agree with the view that the present filled with acts of kindness, positive human relationships, meditation, and activities in which we are fully committed, increases our happiness. As for the future, if we approach it with optimism, positive goals, and the cultivation of spirituality, that score will be completed.
“My experiential self has emerged awakened from the primordial sea of universal consciousness, looking around in orientation to a strange place and people, using instinctive survival tools to establish itself in this individual life. Quickly the world of enchantment has revealed itself to my nascent mind as if to say, stay around my little one, we welcome you with love and blessings. And indeed, my contemporary mind when it looks back to this time of magic through fog of faded memories feels the warmth of the heart, smile of the face, and adoration toward family, people, and other living creatures met on the path of this current manifestation of life.”