Nostalgia Is a Toxin

Published on 2021-02-05 on Sebastian Mellen's Blog

Childhood — oh, you are the great universal.

You bound me into who I am today, but you are just a shell — I had to shed the dreams you enthralled me with to writhe away from your grasp. That boundless freedom of having every option was a prison all the same, and I knew it. But I miss you still, and sometimes I wonder… Have you forever slipped away from my reach?

Into my heart an air that kills
⠀From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills,
⠀What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
⠀I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
⠀And cannot come again.

— AE Housman, A Shropshire Lad

I am descending into adulthood, into ossification and surety — I am inheriting a new, well-defined image of myself, only the image is stricter this time: it is contracted and negotiated, agreed to and certified, credentialed and approved and signed off on — I am boxing myself up in a box of my own making and shipping myself to the best destination I can afford postage to. Gosh, what a thing… To be freer than I ever have been, but only because of my constraints.

In this everlasting struggle between freedom and responsibility, nothingness and somethingness, definition and amorphousness, I don’t know which role to play or where to stand. The dunes shift their weights from peak to peak and I am slipping down their sandy slopes like Ozymandias, always knowing that whatever kingdom I build is impermanent and will be blown apart by the winds of time in short order. And walking the middle way is a sure way to be torn to pieces by those who disagree about whether it is even right to walk it.

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
⠀O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
⠀There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow
⠀From form to form, and nothing stands;
⠀They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

But in my spirit will I dwell,
⠀And dream my dream, and hold it true;
⠀For tho’ my lips may breathe adieu,
I cannot think the thing farewell.

— Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, Section 123

I am trying to weave my way through life like a threadmaker guides her finest needle through the tender fabric of fate, but my hands are shaking so I resort to using a machine, and, being in dearth of good material, I’m forced to cut myself from the same cloth as everyone else.

What a shock, to grow up, and to realize the reason all the people who puzzled me as a child because they looked so normal and dreary and dreadfully standard were the way they were because of something I hand’t yet learned — the cloth of life is hard to cut, harder to repair, and nearly impossible to fashion into anything stylish. So why cut your own cloth or style your own clothes if you know you’ll only end up adorned in rags? Why not just buy a shirt off the shelf and be average?

You see, that’s what all those people did, and I couldn’t understand why, because I didn’t know how hard it was to make your own clothes. And sometimes I realize something that feels more profound — that even these clothes, nice as they may be, are abominations, for we are all only our naked selves — the cloaks of our personas cannot keep us safe from the ever-advancing reach of decay. So why do we invent all these abstractions and beat around the bush so much? We are all going to die, why not embrace it? Why not rush headlong into life and be naked and free, roaming earth under the sun as we were meant to be?

Sometimes a strange feeling dawns on me, as if the cosmos wants me to realize it’s all a tragic mistake: the people around me are caged, and they’ve forgotten it. They’ve upholstered their cages with ample padding and fancy wallpaper, and once in awhile they squeeze themselves into some new image or persona. But they make themselves so comfortable inside their cages that they forget there’s anything else. And when this happens to enough people, as has happened so many times before, the scaffolding of society breaks apart, because everyone is contained within its structure, and the pillars that hold it up rot away unseen by to those who depend upon them. This ark of society is so large no one person can understand it. And today, no one lives outside this ark. We are all its subjects.

Will we stay afloat?

It’s funny, because expressing this angst and worry is typical of someone in my position, and I’m sure that’s what any reasonable person would console me with: “Yes, this is a process everyone goes through, just don’t worry too much about it and keep your head up and your accounting in order and your taxes paid and basic needs met, and you’ll be fine. The angst goes away after a while.” You see? There’s a sort of suppression mechanism built into all of us. It seems accepting that we are only products of our culture, and that that may be bad, is too raw and painful a thought to handle.

That nostalgia for the unculturebound past is ever present, and the regret and angst that feeds it simmers silently beneath our feet. Everyone is penetrated by the feeling that things were better once, and everything has only gotten worse in time. The idea that things could’ve been done better — that we’ve ended up here by mistake — nags at all of us. “There must have been a way to salvage it, or maybe we did it all wrong from the beginning. There must have been some other pathway that would’ve left us satiated…”

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:

— Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

Let me present you with a strong opinion:

Reminiscent nostalgia is a toxin. Do away with it, and live in the present, and you will be freed of your paranoia that you bungled what could have been, and your wistfulness for times past. You are where you are now, why would you be anywhere else? Why would you want to be anywhere else?

Perhaps the greatest knowledge, the most freeing and empowering thing to know, is that these secret worries are harbored by every thinking being. They are a human universal. And the way to liberation is to let go of those worries. Realize the future holds no great hope of redemption, and the past holds no blame for what has happened. The only time is now, and by knowing this, we can begin to enjoy and make better the present moment.

So go out and do something, don’t reminisce!

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.

— Bil Keane

Don’t stand still in shifting sands, surf time’s dunes to better lands. Don’t cling to rocks you’ve been falling with all along. The whole idea is just to dance, there is no final destination, and once you know this you are free to act and live without any hesitation.

It is the doing of it itself that is important, because after all, if the object of music were to gain a certain destination, those orchestras that played fastest would be considered the best.

— Alan Watts, Mythology of Hinduism – Pt. 1