The bittersweet emotion that reminds us we’re alive
As a teenager and young 20-something, I avidly wrote in journals. I spent long nights alone listening to music and writing out my angst on the thin-lined pages of cerulean blue notebooks. Those pages captured the beautiful moments of deep connections with the people who shaped my life. They captured the devastating loss of those deep connections to petty things, to natural drifting, to things I still regret; they captured first loves and second loves and the cyclical nature of the rise and decline of those relationships that faded into nothingness after meaning everything to me. They captured personal victories that I had no idea I celebrated, and personal crises I had no idea I hadn’t yet resolved.
A few years ago, while reading through those notebooks, I was filled to the brim with nostalgia. My favorite emotion. Or maybe my least favorite emotion. It’s two-faced and two-sided and it can’t make up its mind.
Nostalgia. Noun. “A sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”
The problem with those notebooks is that I started to go numb at some point in my early 20s, which was so heavily reflected in my final years of journaling. The words on the page turned from cathartic reflections that brought me clarity in moments of uncertainty to mundane, single-line descriptions of what I did with my day. For a while, I realized I had no feelings of nostalgia, not even when I tried.
The first few years after graduating from undergrad were difficult and aimless. I joined the Peace Corps and faced challenges I couldn’t have imagined. My brief endeavor into life as an imperialist was not full of the joyful thrills and satisfaction as advertised on the brochures. Being a volunteer did not feel helpful, fulfilling, or even really appropriate- but that’s a different story entirely. During that time of profound solitude and existential crisis, life did not feel light and adventurous anymore. And it didn’t when I came home, either, feeling equally as aimless as I had before I crossed the sea. I wasn’t enjoying the journey.
And although I tried, I didn’t miss it for a second, despite a few positive memories that I recalled largely without emotion. For quite a while afterwards, life still felt dull. Eventually, I skimmed through those old blue journals to try to remember what it was like to feel things again. So much time had passed since I had truly felt a part of something, somewhere, for long enough that it felt like I had built a home filled with people and places to be affectionately nostalgic for. After that rough, raw Peace Corps experience, and after coming home to find myself stuck in limbo, all I found myself wishing for was a new experience to someday look back at and feel nostalgic for- a time that I could remember with a mix of happiness, sadness, loss, and love all at once. This gap of nostalgia, after careful thought, seemed to come from a gap of joy, wonder, hope, and enthusiasm for the possibilities of life.
Nostalgia is interesting to me because of its duality. To me, nostalgia means that you once felt the passionate burn of the beautiful gift of simply being alive. Nostalgia means that you are grateful for those times. And nostalgia doesn’t mean that everything was perfect. Sure, nostalgia means you had those moments where your heart was so full and on fire you thought it would explode, and the love you held inside of it was boiling to the brim. It means you took the time to wake up with your family and walk to the beach and watch the sunrise, and that simple moment seemed like the most important and incredible piece of time that could exist. Nostalgia is seeing your first cactus in the desert, running your first marathon, the stargazing nights in red rock parks, the first nervous breath on a sun-baked campus where you will eventually end an 8-year journey through grad school and emerge a completely different person than you arrived.
But nostalgia also means that you at one point or more felt an ache in your heart for a loss of something that meant so much to you; it means you struggled and you fell into despair, and you drove to the ocean to watch the sunset and release the tension in your chest out into tears while the violent winter waves crashed into the hardened sand. Nostalgia is the realization that sometimes your best efforts are truly for nothing, it’s the deep sting of betrayal, the phone call that makes your heart drop, the long flight home with an empty seat beside you. Nostalgia means you cared more than you thought you could about anything, and it means that you lost that thing, and you tried your hardest to deal with the pain of letting it go. And part of you will always be unsuccessful in that endeavor. But part of you is okay with that, because you know that your heart is too big and life is too short. Thankfully, sometimes, nostalgia is just a feeling.
Nostalgia means there was a time in your life where you wrote in your journal in a foreign land, “Firstly, great weekend- I don’t even care if I puked on the beach, it was still great. I can’t believe I slept on an inflatable mattress exposed to millions of crabs on a sketchy deserted island that belongs to some guy named ‘Sexo’. I love it!”, and you distinctly remember never feeling so alive, and so humbled, and so grateful for everything in the world around you than in that moment, puking up amoebas on the beach, in the company of the people who could only understand the magic of it if they had been there themselves. Nostalgia is a genuine sincerity that you have loved moments of life, both through turmoil and through the best weekend you could’ve ever imagined, with a sincere thankfulness that you have been able to experience exactly what you have, regardless of any later outcome.
A lack of nostalgia, to me, means that you’re in a dark season in your life. It means that you’ve lost that wonder, that energy, that life-force drive that keeps you excited for each coming day and all of its possibilities. A lack of nostalgia means you’ve stopped believing in those possibilities, and you can’t enjoy the present because you don’t believe that there’s any adventure left to come your way. A lack of nostalgia means that you have settled, and not in a way that contributes meaningfully to your life, at least momentarily.
Nostalgia makes me feel both wonderful and terrible; it keeps me feeling attached to both the important things I have gained, and the important things I have lost. It brings me a bittersweet mixture of happiness and sadness, and even though it sometimes hurts, I think I live for it. On my worst days, it makes me feel lost and sad and even sometimes resentful, but often times it brings me back to hope. And on my best days, it keeps me burning for adventure, it keeps me on my toes, it keeps me remembering to fill my heart with gratitude for each and every moment, good and bad, because I am alive, and I am grateful, and these are moments worth treasuring.
I hope at the end of my life I am filled with nostalgia. I hope my life is still waiting to unfold with new moments and people and places that will tug at my heart when I think of them years later. I hope that they’re mostly positive, and I hope that in the end, the negative ones will have given me strength.
I have come to terms with the fact that life is cyclical with dark seasons and light seasons and some last shorter or longer than we’d like them to. I would love to say that I will never again lose sight of the fact that there is always hope for more memories to burn at with the beautiful pain of nostalgia- and we haven’t even experienced them yet. But sometimes, I know that I do.