The Pain of Nostalgia

Nostalgia hurts us. Reliving past joys causes us pain, but why? And why does this nostalgia translate to media we enjoyed at a different time in our lives?

By Serena Ypelaar

Have you ever felt inclined to revel in the past but found that it just hurt too much?

Last night, The Wizard of Oz (1939) was on TV and I felt instinctively drawn to it. Why? Because The Wizard of Oz was my favourite film as a kid, from when I was about three or four. It’ll always have very strong sentimental value and I’ll always feel quite attached to it. It’s also an excellent film for its time, a cinematic masterpiece that makes a big impact even now.

But when I tried to watch the film yesterday (admittedly after a very long and trying day), I almost physically couldn’t handle it. Instantly, I found myself on the verge of tears, regardless of what was happening in the story at any given time. (For the record, it was the part in which the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) infiltrate the witch’s fortress trying to rescue Dorothy (Judy Garland). Dorothy was calling for her Auntie Em in the crystal ball as the hourglass trickled down, and I was done for.) I felt that familiar clenching in my chest that strikes when I feel intense nostalgia (or interestingly, when I feel anxious). But this pain seems the most potent when I’m thinking about good days gone by, and how far removed I am from them now.

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The Wizard of Oz (1939). Photo: Flickr

My childhood is a safe haven which in times of difficulty I sometimes crave. While I won’t be short-sighted enough to assume this is the case for everyone, I want to examine nostalgia as a common element of the human experience, whether it’s for one’s childhood or a different time in one’s life.

Why couldn’t I watch the film without experiencing physical and emotional pain? Because nostalgia is so powerful that we feel victim to it, and any past emotions we felt are felt again – this time accompanied by loss. We’re not in that moment anymore and we can never be again. We’ve learned in The Great Gatsby (1925) that “you can’t repeat the past”, and trying to recreate it can cause intense suffering. But nostalgia gives us so much deeply rooted longing that we’re often gripped by it unexpectedly.

One of my favourite TV series, Mad Men, uses the concept of nostalgia to great advantage in the final episode of its first season. When Don Draper makes an advertising pitch for the newly patented Kodak carousel slide projector, he delivers a presentation so moving that one of his colleagues runs from the room in tears.

Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

Mad Men 1.13, “The Wheel” (2007)

Knowing that nostalgia is supposed to hurt may not mitigate our tumultuous experience, but it can offer some shared comfort as we all navigate the inevitable passage of time.

The question is, do we choose to brave the pain and relive our wonderful memories, or do we stuff them away to avoid the emotional turmoil? The second option is arguably worse for emotional health in the long run – though it’s admittedly hard to look back on a golden age from a new and learned perspective.

But then again, aren’t our good memories worth it?

One thought on “The Pain of Nostalgia

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