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How often are you overly sentimental about the past?

Today is August 29 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you overly sentimental about the past?” Those who learn how to move forward and accomplish one goal after another spend little, if any, time in a state of nostalgia or being overly sentimental about the past. Those who navigate the chaos understand the past is behind them and, as discussed in other Navigate the Chaos posts, the future is yet within their power.

With limited time, resources, and energy, those who translate their dreams seldom allow their memories to slow their forward progress, blind them to the present, or distract them from their goals. Being overly sentimental about the past brings to mind the Latin phrase fallaces sunt rerum species, meaning 'the appearances of things are deceptive.’ Not everything is as it seems, and neuroscientists have demonstrated just how unreliable memories are. Thus, the past is one of the most common things with a deceptive appearance.

In his 1984 song “Keeping the Faith,” Billy Joel sang “Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies/Cause the good ole days weren't always good/and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.” This holding on to our memories both real and perceived, this longing for yesterday, and this life strategy of remaining overly sentimental about the past is known as nostalgia.

Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term nostalgia in his 1688 medical dissertation, from the Greek nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain. The disease was similar to paranoia, except the sufferer was manic with longing, not perceived persecution, and similar to melancholy, except specific to an object or place. Like most strategies used to Navigate the Chaos, nostalgia is nuanced.

Any proper understanding requires a brief reflection on three different traits of this nuanced strategy used to navigate life: emotion over memory, positive attributions, and future potential.

The first nuanced meaning comes from psychiatrist Alan R. Hirsch who defines nostalgia as “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”

According to Hirsch, nostalgia relates to an emotional state more than a specific memory and occurs when people attach an emotional state to an era, or a specific frame, and choose to idealize that specific time. Through this state of being overly sentimental, people deduce that because they remember the feeling of happiness at a young age that their childhood must have been better than the present moment.

Hirsch’s report went on to conclude that “one may speculate that nostalgic desires will increase in the coming decade since it seems likely that the more dissatisfied we are with the present, the more we idealize the past. Therefore, in the hard times ahead, it will be easier to sell nostalgia.”

In addition to the emotion over memory nuanced understanding of nostalgia, Dr. Constantine Sedikides helped shed light on positive affirmations and pioneered a the “Southampton Nostalgia Scale.” The Southampton Nostalgia Scale demonstrated that nostalgia had been shown to counteract feelings of boredom, loneliness, and anxiety. Nostalgia can also make people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Sedikides also discovered that couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories.

“Nostalgia” as per Sedikides, “makes us a bit more human.” He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times, but Dr. Sedikides emphasizes that nostalgia is not the same as homesickness. “It’s not just for those away from home, and it’s not a sickness, despite its historical reputation.”

The third nuanced attribute involved with nostalgia is known as future potential. Toni Morrison’s Commencement address to the Wellesley College Class of 2004 illustrates such a nuance behind this life strategy when she said: “I’m sure you have been told that this is the best time of your life. It may be. But if it’s true that this is the best time of your life, if you have already lived or are now living at this age the best years, or if the next few turn out to be the best, then you have my condolences. But if that’s all you have on your mind, then you do have my sympathy, and if these are indeed the best years of your life, you do have my condolences because there is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood. The adulthood that is the span of life before you. The process of becoming one is not inevitable. Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard-won glory.”

Morrison challenged the graduates to remain open to their future potential. While they may reflect fondly on their college years, they should remember that the best time of their life remains. More importantly perhaps, Morrison reminds the graduates that “the process of becoming one is not inevitable.” If you maintain a frequent and overtly sentimental belief in the past you risk the ‘process of becoming one.’

  • If you are looking for an explanation as to why you may be stuck in your life situation, ask yourself how often are you overly sentimental about the past?

  • Do you long for some perceived state of yesterday?

  • Are you obsessed with some good feeling, emotion, or connection from decades ago?

  • Is your mind so focused on someone that you are paralyzed from dreaming, doing, or becoming?

  • How often are you overly sentimental about the past?


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