Melancholy and Our Infinite Nostalgia
by Lillie Sauer
If you’ve ever listened to The Smashing Pumpkins, you might already appreciate their dreamy melodic themes, lyrical nuance, or general shoegazey brilliance. If you haven’t, hopefully you will soon at least be able to appreciate where I’m going with this clumsy introduction to my thoughts on the impracticality of our naturally idealistic human memories. Of all the things I could have referenced, The SPs come to mind as an especially powerful personal connection to romanticized memories — like those times after school when I drove to my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s house, listening to “Tonight, Tonight,” and we watched The Royal Tenenbaums while drinking sparkling cider, then napped on the futon in the sunroom (because what’s high school without the sleep deprivation?).
What I’m trying to say is that nostalgia, that bittersweet sentimental longing for the past or some long-gone feeling, finds a way to affect each of us in the most peculiar of ways. Aside from our individual experiences with nostalgic triggers, though, the general effect is essentially the same: a temporary dissociation from the present due to some attractive force from the past. It might not be so easy to see how this could be harmful, until we look at it in terms of our expectations for the future. We might want to accept that the best is yet to come, but sometimes the past can be so damned alluring and the temptation to pull out those rose-tinted shades is undeniably hard to resist. Before I allow myself to melt into a puddle of blissful angst from the grating brassiness of Billy Corgan’s voice, however, I think those of us who are sometimes content to exist in the realm of pure untethered emotionality might stand to gain some composure. I’d like to offer some thoughts on how and why we might seek to do that, but first, an anecdote.
When I was about four years old, I rode my cherry red tricycle up and down the sidewalks of a small, foggy Wisconsin town. There’s one time in particular that I remember doing this. I know this ride was an especially important one, because I remember feeling very brave, as well as especially mature for having crossed the streets exactly how I had been taught to do. I don’t remember exactly where my voyage began, just that I had awoken from a nap to an unusually quiet house, which could have only meant that my siblings had gone somewhere without me. Indignation arose from within my little body: Why would they think I’d rather nap than go with them? Did they just forget me? Either way, I wasn’t going to sit around like I was okay with the situation. I narrowed down where they might be to two likely places — the convenience store or our neighbors’ place, up the road by the church — tied my shoes (adding to the pride/maturity thing) and hit the pavement. Timing was important here, as I didn’t want them to start heading back home before I had a chance to surprise them by showing up on my own and make them feel guilty for leaving me. I had to think efficiently and act fast. The two places were about equidistant from my house, but the convenience store, with its one cent Tootsie Rolls, seemed a safer bet. Upon arriving, my gut told me they weren’t in there (I decided this from about twenty feet away, as I didn’t feel confident enough to go into the store alone). So, a little less proud and all the more determined, I headed in the opposite direction, imagining how the scenario would play-out — Should I call them out before they have a chance to speak? Do I play it cool and act like I wasn’t actually looking for them? Needless to say, my four-year-old ego was nearing the depletion of its already meager reserves. When I arrived to nothing but the surprised and concerned looks on my neighbors’ faces, as they realized I had triked there on my own, I began feeling terribly alone. After a phone call to Mom and an assurance that I could make it safely back home on my own, I returned, dragging my feet up the front porch steps. The indignation having been washed away by my tears, I now only wanted some company. With one last burst of hope, I checked the basement, which earlier was dark and quiet, so warranted no inspection. Flipping on the light switch, I heard three protesting voices, “Turn that off!” “Hey!” “We’re watching a movie!”
If we had only to open some unassuming basement door to find that satisfaction we’re all searching for! But this is reality; the transient joy from reflecting upon the past will only ever remain in the shadow of present life’s emotional influence. That’s the thing about waxing nostalgic: its initial sweetness lures you in so effortlessly that you don’t realize the trouble until you’re already in its painful grasp. The pain here being that of feelings that have transitioned from wistful affection to a melancholic longing for current circumstances to be other than they are. And the trouble is, we often can’t change our lives to the extent that we’d like, though we can work on how we react to the things we want to change. Of course, this isn’t something we know intuitively, but from experience (or else we wouldn’t be discussing the negative consequences of nostalgia). Consequently, learning how to best treat this luring-in of bygone days takes time, awareness, and not a small amount of struggle, lest we spend our days longing for a replay of moments unreachable, distorted through memory’s rosy haze.
We should try to hold our dear old friend nostalgia at a comfortable arm’s length — close enough to feel its warm, familiar touch, but not so close that we lose ourselves in its embrace. I cannot stop my senses from occasionally sweeping me back to that autumn filled with bergamot-scented candles, when Fallout 4 consumed hours of my days, while I consumed too many Hurt’s Donuts and yerba mate tea. But what I can do is force myself also to consider the less romantic things belonging to that time; that I was suffering from an exponentially growing load of schoolwork, a miserable part-time job, severe anxiety, and a lack of human connection. In doing so, I can start to turn the fonder, easier-to-think-about parts of my memories into fuel for thinking about how I can ensure that there will be more and better ones in the future. That way, we can begin to see the more painful demands of life today not just in terms of their presently distressing influence, but as little reminders that it is possible to look back upon this time and feel at least a twinge of longing for the smallest of comforts even in the most miserable of circumstances. Reminders, as Corgan puts it, “that life can change, that you’re not stuck in vain.”
We shouldn’t be forced either to make demons of our happy memories, by flooding them with grueling reality, or to bitterly resign ourselves to notions of “good ‘ol days” and bleak futures. We all have the option of finding that pleasantly practical middle-ground, where an honest look into our nostalgic memories can still be beautifully bittersweet, yet serve as a force for a more effectual future. It’s a matter of reassessing how you feel about yesterday, what you want to achieve today, and how you’d like to look back on today, tomorrow. In moderating our emotional reactions in this way, we are not taking up the impossible task of fighting our human nature, but simply making a way for ourselves to become more well-natured humans.