Notes on Nostalgia

Memory was addressed in a previous post to this blog. I haven''t forgotten.  Although I don''t believe that I meet the criteria for what some have termed "memory fetishism," I acknowledge that I am gripped by memory.  In particular, I enjoy nostalgia – that wistful yearning for periods and places of past positive associations. 
Not everyone shares this sentiment.  For six years, having left practice of clinical medicine, I worked as a biotechnology executive.  There were many aspects of that experience which I enjoyed such as the challenges presented by managing a business and translating basic science into effective medications.  But quickly, I found out that there was little tolerance for romanticism in a futuristic world predicated on start-up companies.  Every so often, when I felt reminiscence coming on, I would bite my lip,   because I realized that those who are not given to being nostalgic -- and the biotech world is dominated by such folks -- perceive those of us who are “nostalgics” as being out-of-touch, even antiquated.   
But what to do?  During the past year, as I have set out here to deepen my sense of self awareness, I’ve concluded that I am an incorrigible nostalgic.
Many things can trigger nostalgia for me -- Captain America dolls, an old joke, 45 vinyl discs, and books that I read in high school  (the writing of Steinbeck, Dickens and Salinger, particularly) are not only retro but also evocative.
Usually, the warmth of nostalgia has a way of enveloping me. Sometimes, though, I am in active pursuit of such feelings. This past March, just before the NCAA basketball tournament, someone asked Greg Anthony, -- the leading CBS sports analyst, -- whom he''d like to see play in the championship game.  He quickly responded, "University of Louisville vs. Georgetown University” and then explained, "For me, it would create nostalgia of the great games of the Big East Conference from years gone by."  Aha, I thought.  Anthony, too, is someone who craves and seeks nostalgia. Same here.
I further enjoy nostalgia because I''ve found that it is easily shared.  When I think about sitting down with my childhood buddies Jeffrey and Jack, I get a rush.  I know we’ll have good times, not only because we always meet at a great restaurant (though that too!) but rather because recollections are about to be fleshed out again.  As we sit down, we’ll transport ourselves back to the eraser fights, and the classes we cut before proceeding to rehash those unresolvable debates about the prettiest and smartest of our school.  In reliving those memories, invariably, we kindle new insights within each other.
If nostalgia was a drug, the package insert would list several potential risks and side effects. First, it can be addictive.  When I find myself becoming nostalgic too frequently, it can barricade me in the past and occasionally prevent me from addressing the everyday problems that are lurking. It never seems a good thing to flee from the immediacy, dynamism and even transience of the present.  Second, nostalgia can lead to dangerous comparisons.  In his song, Keeping the Faith, Billy Joel cautions "…the good old days weren''t always good." In other words, sometimes we engage in revisionist history and compare ourselves to something that never existed.  Finally, Albert Camus speculated that "people become nostalgic when the present does not agree with past hopes."  Indeed, nostalgia must not become the default option for dealing with disappointment.  
On balance, though, it''s good to be aware of some of my subtle personal tendencies – such as my love of nostalgia.  For me, the "yesterdays" have a profound impact on the "todays".  And so, I will continually have to find a way to live with the past and not just in the past. 
Next Monday, our journey of 52 will come to an end. Already, I''m starting to miss it. 
Post Script:
Many of you have been traveling this journey with me for weeks or even months. It''s been wonderful to share this time. As our 52 weeks wind down, I invite you to join me in a short activity. 
Stand in front of a mirror. Close your eyes and think of yourself as you were 12 months ago.  Imagine yourself at that moment at home, at work, and at play – with the people in your life at the various places that you like to frequent. Keeping eyes closed, envision yourself, “watch yourself” in your mind, as you moved through those spaces and relationships.  Stay there as long as it takes to gather a clear image. Open your eyes. Look in the mirror. Gaze deeply. Who is the person you see before you now?  What do you see today that has shifted or changed since last year? Think about the answer and write down your thoughts.  Hold them until next week’s blog.  More, then, to come. 
Shalom, Ben