Looking back to my early twenties, I remember having a lot of energy. I remember the euphoria as I began to embrace my sexuality and a wild sense of possibility that was probably out of place as I had just entered a recession. Thinking about that time makes my brain tingle and my stomach churn to the beat of a thousand first dates. That’s nostalgia, the buzzing feeling “those were still times”.
What I don’t remember that well from that time is the depression. I can’t fully relive the rundown shared apartments that followed the hopelessness of moving back in with my parents. I can’t taste the boredom of unemployment because it doesn’t really taste good. I remember all of these things, but the emotions feel deadened. When everything is blurred, even the ugliest times look kinda pretty. Somehow it’s always easier to evoke positive feelings than ones filled with misery.
It is well known that some of those who have given birth have difficulty fully remembering the pain of labor. Although scientifically dubious, my mother always told me that the exquisite torments my siblings and I tunneled out of her had lost their poignancy sometime after each of us was born. She remembered better the euphoria of holding each of us in her arms for the first time. A large part of nostalgia is a form of amnesia when it comes to the suffering that makes it so dangerous.
Online, news of the cost of living crisis has been met with the strangest reaction imaginable by some. Nostalgia for the UK of the 1970s – when houses were freezing, food lacked nutritional content and everything was brown – was rife on social media. Objectively awful aspects of life fifty years ago have been recast into something comforting – something some suggest we should like to relive.
If anything can polish a turd, it’s nostalgia. The things that people actually enjoyed about their lives all those decades ago — presumably the same things I enjoyed in my early twenties — have been crushed along with all the stinky shaggy carpets and icy windows.
Politically, the power of nostalgia is used again and again – especially by the extreme right. From Trump’s “Make America Great Again” to your uncle’s obsession with WWII Brexit, right-wing populists are evoking a past that never really happened.
nostalgia stunts our growth; it roots us in a highly idealized version of our history and prevents us from pushing for change. And while it can feel almost blissful, nostalgia is a kind of sadness. It’s a feeling that the best years of your life are over, the present is somehow missing, and the future is only worthwhile if it emulates the past.
And believe me, there’s no better way to trigger a panic attack than to think of now as a time you’ll eventually feel nostalgic for.