Many people suffer from a nostalgia for a time they never lived. The social media shorthand for this romantic affliction is ‘old soul’. Offline pathology is way more complicated.
The past is invariably seen through rose tinted glasses. From lost youth at a personal level to lost property at a family level to lost glory at a civilization level. A sticky belief that things were better in the past. But despite all our Throwback Thursdays, the Pandemic has lasted a year and it has changed the world in lasting ways.
Some people will never stop wearing masks, shaking hands may never come back completely, some people will never go to the theater again and a few will never step out of the house again. Overall, the world has become a sadder place. But on our screens, we will only hear of success stories, of opportunity in adversity and other such done to death tropes. So we will have to trudge on, keeping our heartaches personal and our filters public.
This is the one time nostalgia seems valid. But its value is at best poetic.
The past was probably not as great as you remember it to be. Just that you were younger and felt everything more viscerally. But that is a proximate reason. The ultimate reason lies in biology, as it always does. As we move more and more into a sterile, hyper-connected but alienating world, our biology fails to keep up. Millions of years of fine tuning to a omnivorous trekking lifestyle cannot reconcile with streaming video games and eating puffs from a box all day.
Perhaps that is why we collectively yearn for a past where things felt just right. Sure, we didn’t have anti-biotics and indoor plumbing. But that was a small price to pay for feeling truly alive. A collective yearning to be one with nature. The assumption being that animals; not being burdened by our level of consciousness, are not afflicted by anxiety and doubt. Fear; yes, but only the most objective kind, that of being eaten alive. We try everything from vacations to drugs to polyamory. But nothing lasts because we are never on a vacation from our mind.
The world is changing in innumerable irreversible ways all the time. Just that in a pandemic it became a shared and conscious experience. Entropy still moves only in one direction and time can never be rolled back. Even when Nolan tries to do it in a make-believe world, it only ends up being messy. And we know it. Yet we keep flirting with the idea. A reluctance to accept that the only thing that really ever exists is the present. The past and the future only exist in our thoughts. Hence, retro usually means something cool but baggage usually means something bad.
Collecting memorabilia is perhaps the most tragic attempt at making a time machine. Documentation is important and they say those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. But history does repeat itself anyway. Through the ages. Only the props change, human drama remains the same. Ideologies come and go, the only constant is human suffering. Yet we nurse ideas and kick people in the teeth.
Of course, the past is important. From cricket stats to performance appraisals. But these are mere social interactions. Important only to the point you recognize them, otherwise just a formality. Anything beyond that is a drag on life. We are already carrying the dead weight of all our ancestors before we even get to handling our own weight. The more we identify with our past, the slower we can move ahead. It is a horrible affliction. Identifying with your ex-employer, your previous lovers, your graduation batch, your old neighborhood, your PubG team, old pop songs and Dil Chahta Hai. All of those things are dead. The more you associate with them, the less you actually live.
Nostalgia is the feeling that things were better than they actually were and you could have done more than what was possible. Anxiety is its opposite.
The only thing that truly matters is that you are alive right now. Only when we completely die to the past can we actually experience the present. It is a daily process but so is everything that is living and in motion. And that; perhaps, would be feeling truly alive.
- Punit Pania