Nostalgia for a Time I Never Lived In

We only live in the present. The past only exists in our imagination and the future in our speculation. (I wish I came up with that line… but alas I’m paraphrasing one of my old philosophy professors) Listening to an album of folk songs (mostly old sea shanties) by an Irish singer/musician named Colm McGuinness, I got a bizarre sense of nostalgia for the sea, which is inexplicable for the fact that when I go to the beach I don’t even go into the water much less swim. It reminded me of a comment I read of a rendition of a country song named Country Roads by John Denver, which went something like “I’m nostalgic for a place I’ve never been.” In another instant, I was listening to the YouTube commentator (and progenitor of the Philosophy of Dadism) Carl Benjamin (formerly Sargon of Akkad) who was describing why he liked reading about ancient history. To paraphrase him, it’s because there is something magical about ancient history.

I take from all these examples (other than the fact that I spend too much time on YouTube) that we humans are highly susceptible to nostalgia. Even nostalgia where it is impossible for us to have experienced it ourselves. The closest term I can take for this phenomenon is parasocial nostalgia. Just as we are able to connect and sympathize with fictional characters on the screen or page, we are able to connect with emotions, places, and things we have never experienced.

Adam Smith posited in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that humans can sympathize with one another’s pain. However, this varied. Physical pain (what he calls passions of the body) is rather hard to fully sympathize with. If someone breaks their leg we can (sometimes rather viscerally) imagine what it is like to break our leg… but never to the same degree as the sufferer. However, if someone walks up to you and explains that their father has just died, the well-adjusted individual can almost immediately, and easily, sympathize with that person’s suffering. Now sympathy doesn’t only have to do with pain, we can also sympathize with other people’s joy and positive emotions. Smith argues that the only route to sympathy is through our imagination.

Now that explains why we can feel what others feel, but what’s with the nostalgia? I speculate that is because we look to places and events that we are far apart from as simpler times. To again reference Carl Benjamin, ancient times were indeed times of certain magic. We place ourselves in the past (or sometimes in different places) not only because we feel like they are simpler and more magical, but because intuitively we feel like we could be happier. That we could do more with less.

A German sociologist by the name of Erich Fromm wrote that people paradoxically want freedom, but at the same time are afraid of it. Freedom (true freedom mind you i.e having many, many choices with the actual ability to choose) is anxiety-producing and many people would prefer to submit than have to actually take the risks associated with it. We would rather submit so that someone else can take that responsibility for us.

That is what I think is happening to a certain extent with our nostalgia. We want to go back to a time when we understood the world. This can be when you listen to an old song that you grew up with (or movie) and wish to go back to when you understood the world (or more correctly you didn’t understand the world). Most of us in a sense kind of want the simple life.

There is a great little book called Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorious, which chronicles the life of the author. When Martin was 12 he began to suffer from lock-down syndrome and began to lose motor functions. He then went into a vegetative state for 3 years, however, when he began to regain consciousness he was unable to communicate that fact to his caregivers. He was effectively a prisoner in his own body… and for a number of years, no one knew. Fortunately, he was eventually able to communicate to one of his caregivers that he was aware by moving his eyes.

One thing that caught me about that book is the fact that for almost all his life he made no choices of his own. On one occasion he and his wife went to a shoe store to get him a pair of shoes, and he describes breaking down crying when he was being kindly asked by the clerk and his wife which ones he would like. He had never had that type of pressure in his life. While nowhere near as traumatic as Mr. Pistoriuos’ life, it does lend itself to the pressure we all face to make choices. It is no wonder then that we are inclined to often want to retreat. To just be told what to do.


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