On more than one occasion I’ve been accused of living in the past. This is a playful jab rather than a serious indictment, but I’m the first to put my hands up and say, “Guilty as charged.”
I am a nostalgia junkie. It’s my most favorite vice, faster and more effective than alcohol or drugs but equally as damaging when used to excess. For all the warmth a good memory inspires, there is an inherent danger that grows greater the longer one lingers. In doting on the past we often unconsciously reshape it into something far better than it was, omitting troublesome details for the sake of simplicity. The clinical term for this, I believe, is delusion.
Contemporary culture is saturated with nostalgia. The advent of social networking has revolutionized reminiscence, with sites like Facebook and Instagram dedicated to the easy preservation of good times. While this is no doubt convenient, it seems like we’ve become more interested in making memories than actually feeling them as they occur, a kind of preemptive nostalgia. It goes farther. To get the full gist of our modern obsession with all things past one need only look to Timehop, an iPhone app which syncs to users’ social media accounts and allows them to see what he or she was posting on a given day before urging them to repost it.
I don’t wish to sound curmudgeonly, especially not at 21 years old. I love social media. It’s a wonderful thing. But having constant access to the Good Ol’ Days has done me more harm than good. I lost a pretty major friendship near the end of high school. (Any explanation as to why would quickly devolve into a shaggy dog story that’s hardly worth your time or patience.) He defriended me (as in non-electronically) about four years ago but only got around to it digitally in the last two. Still, there are countless videos of the two of us floating around Youtube and Facebook: old film class projects, dumb pranks, comedy sketches, music videos, and all manner of nonsensical ‘bits’ that were never funny to anybody but us.
The problem isn’t that I revisit these videos but that I do so with unabashed regularity. I’ve come to realize it’s not just that old friendship I’m wistful for but also a simpler time in my life, when papers were only four pages long and I didn’t have to worry about finding a job or paying rent. Seeing sixteen year-old me acting stupid with friends, blissfully ignorant of the pressure to come, is like peering into an alternate dimension where I will always be young and unburdened by responsibility. It fills me with a sense of relief every time I go back. Good, I think, at least he’s still safe.
As I said at the start, the biggest problem facing those who suffer from acute nostalgia is the tendency to romanticize or gloss over less-than-savory moments and characters. My friend made me laugh harder than anyone else. He introduced me to many of the films and albums I now call my favorites. But he also had a penchant for cruelty. Many of our former classmates whom I’ve grown closer to since graduating are the ones he used to mock the most. Their recollections of him are, as you can imagine, significantly less charitable than mine. This worries me, since what I essentially became was his more tolerable doppelgänger. I don’t like to think I’m capable of the same cruelty but perhaps I’m in denial. This might explain why in moments of remembrance I’m quicker to recall his comedic genius instead of the time he dumped his girlfriend over the phone.
I believe we’re all susceptible to errant wistfulness. We’ve all done weird things in the name of sentimentality. We’ve crept on old Facebook pages and reread month-old texts. We’ve put on songs adored by ex-lovers or worn clothes they’ve left behind. More often than not, to the outside world, this behavior looks pathetic and, yes, sometimes it is. But often it’s the only way to cope with unresolved feelings toward people no longer accessible to us. These mementos are like pieces to a puzzle we’ll never solve. I still have no idea why my friend chose to cut me out of his life. By graduation, he had drifted away and become a total stranger. But in those stupid videos, frozen in time, he’ll always be a person I recognize.
It’s a new year, which means for a little while we’re all going to attempt to be better people. We’re going to exercise. We’re going to drink less. We’re going to spend more time with the ones we love. I’m not making any promises, but this year, my last year of college, I’d like to dwell less on the past and more on the future, since — to quote the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) — “that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”