The Underbelly of Nostalgia

It takes courage to look unflinchingly at our past without the rose-tinted glasses of “the good ‘ole days.”

Memories are a bit like movies: they stir emotions in us, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

The reality of green screens, costumes, makeup— not to mention the panoply of human challenges that arrive when humans work together (i.e. sickness, fatigue, personality clashes, etc.), never make it into the final perfect cut.

Movie for One

Each of us enters a movie theater every day, 24/7. During sleeping hours we are unconscious of the action on the screens of our psyche. Sure, we might mention to a friend:

“I had the strangest dream about my house that started to leak and then fall apart from the top on down. What do you think that’s all about?”

Your friend might wax Freudian on you and say the house symbolizes your life or your marriage or your health. Regardless, the dream interpretation is intended to be considered by the receiver of the dream alone: YOU.

The movie that plays during our conscious hours loves to replay scenes of nostalgia: the “good ole’ days.” The days before:

  • the car accident
  • that family member died
  • puberty arrived
  • the big move
  • the surgery

The list goes on as do the scenes we replay for a dopamine hit of what we perceive as benign nostalgia.

A Fate Worse Than Death

Socrates is famous for stating the following shortly before his death:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Ultimately, the Greek philosopher chose death over exile. For Socrates, to be exiled and unable to seek and examine life was a fate worse than death.

The Danger of Rose-Colored Glasses

There’s a subtle yet distinctive difference between appreciating memories of the past and altering them to fit the narrative you want to see.

Wearing rose-colored glasses in the face of something painful is like wearing beer googles when you start a relationship: it won’t end well.

The Fallout

So what’s the big deal? What’s so terrible about keeping our rose-tinted glasses on indefinitely?

“The body keeps score.” Bessel van der Kolk M.D.

Maybe you keep showing up to your family’s Thanksgiving dinners and smile while Uncle Bill gets drunker and louder as the evening meal continues. Your friendly exterior belies the stomach churning and shoulder knotting in your body.

Perhaps you find your personal movie theater replaying scenes from before you moved and left behind your family and friends. With rose-colored glasses, you find yourself saying things like:

“I miss them so much.”

or

“It’s so much better over there.”

But when you take off your rose-colored glasses, when you sit quite in that dark theater of your mind, you see a different movie playing: you miss the idea of them, of who you wanted them to be, not who they actually are.

After Death

When something dies, new life can begin. The same is true for those memories we’ve glazed with the high-fructose corn syrup of unhealthy nostalgia. 

A part of us has to die to accept the past as it was and not how we wished it would be.

 Acceptance means awareness has arrived and will affect our choices going forward.

And maybe then we can appreciate the past without the need to reach for those rose-tinted glasses. We can look back and see a life lived on our terms; embracing the reality of our experiences, so we are free to choose what to keep and what no longer serves us.

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