When we are very young, all our thoughts are about the present and the very near future. “When can I go out to play? What will we have for dinner? Will I be able to go to the movies this weekend?” As we grow into adulthood, our thoughts are still focused on the present and the future, though they are more long term. “Where will I go to college? Whom will I marry? My career? Where will I live?” In all this time, there is little thought of the past.
When we are working and raising a family, there is not enough time to think of anything but the present. Juggling the demands of job, home, children, commuting, and money, we are just too caught up with getting through the next day, the next crisis. If we think at all about the past, it is to think how much easier life was ” back then”.
It is only after the halfway stage of life, when the past is longer than the future, that we begin to think more and more about the past. Some call this “nostalgia” which the dictionary defines as “ a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” A good definition, but what exactly is it that we long for?
It seems to me there are several components to this desire and they can be characterized as follows: ( Note that these are not arranged in any particular order. They vary from person to person and from time to time)
1.A yearning for a simpler time. No one can deny that the present provides more material gratifications … but it is also much more complicated. Our role in the order of things seems much diminished. To some extent, it may be that when we were young, our personal world was more circumscribed and this led to a feeling of security.
2. The way we were. It is a feeling that hits us particularly when we look at old photographs or videos. Did I ever really look that young ? Did I really have that much hair?Was I really so slim? The feeling also hits us when we see others doing what we once could do, but no longer can. Playing tennis for two hours without stopping. Eating and drinking whatever we want. Returning on an intercontinental flight late on Sunday evening, going to work the next morning and putting in a full days work. Sometimes, particularly among those who defined themselves by their jobs, by what they did, there is a wish for the days when they still felt relevant.
I remember a visit to the military academy at West Point many years ago when I was not yet forty. A pack of cadets was running laps around the track and as I saw their lean yet muscled hard bodies and I thought what it must be like to be so young and fit. I said it out aloud without conscious thought and my mother, then in her sixties, mused” If that is what you feel, imagine what I must feel like.”
3. Times when we were happy and carefree. Summer vacations. Playing with my cousins till dark. Picking out books at the school library. Coming home in the rain and getting soaked. Railway journeys with my parents. Those were happy times or were they? The mind remembers only the good things, the happy times in the past, and it chooses to forget unhappy events. No matter. What is real now are our memories; they are all that count.
4. Places where we were happy. I often think of my grandfather’s house. Constructed of reddish laterite blocks, the expansive verandah rubbed smooth and oh so cool even in the heat of summer, set in a garden with fruit trees: mango ( 17 0f them, all different strains), jackfruit, almond , breadfruit, cherry , sapota and many , many coconut palms. I loved everything about it.The upstairs room wherever no one ever went except myself and where I found a treasure trove of old bound copies of Readers Digests from the forties ; the sand pit; lying on the cool stone of the verandah listening to the patter of the summer rain on the Mangalore tiles and watching it drip from the eaves onto the crotons and form little puddles. The last time I visited , in 1997, there was no trace of my grandfather’s house… it had been demolished by developers and in its place were multi-story apartment buildings. Inevitable, I suppose, but wrenching .
5. People we used to know and whom we miss. Not just those who have passed on but those who have moved away and out of our lives. School mates, college mates, colleagues and old friends. Even those whom we still meet fairly regularly are different. They have changed and so have we; there is less in common now.
It helps to accept that change is constant, that we cannot live in the past. With this understanding, the past can be a source of pleasure rather than melancholy as we relive the happy times. And, of course, we have to focus on the present and build up a store of happy memories because they are what will sustain us in the future. Today’s happenings can be a source of our future nostalgia.