Can one have a nostalgic feeling for a time of great suffering?
March 24, 2010 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Can one have a nostalgic feeling even for a time of great personal suffering?

Something I have noticed in my life is that no matter how terrible a period is that I've gone through, I always end up feeling at least a little pang of nostalgia for it after enough time has passed.

Specifically I remember the holiday season of 1997 when I was at one of my life's lowest points (homeless, penniless, optionless) and I remember thinking even then that I should try to record the moment in my memory to revisit specifically years later to see if that horrible period would still appear gauzy and warm in retrospect and, oddly enough, it did.

So what I wonder, and understand that I dont mean to diminish anyone's suffering at all, but I have to wonder if nostalgic feelings are so universal and so powerful that they can even occur in really tragic periods.

Would holocaust survivors be able to feel those sorts of feelings for time in the ghettos or the camps? People that lived through wars that ravaged their homes? Victims of childhood molestation? Natural disasters? Etc.

Now mind you Im not suggesting people actively try to remember these things warmly at all. But I am interested in the innate power of this very human type of feeling. Can it color any kind of memory? Even a bit?
posted by Senor Cardgage to Human Relations (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Well, nostalgia for Stalinism is going through a bull market in Russia right now. Make of that what you will.
posted by nasreddin at 10:28 AM on March 24, 2010

"Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember." - Seneca

Personally, I feel as you do about a period of my childhood that was very difficult (broke/poor, home insecure, etc.). But molestation? Completely different.
posted by peep at 10:34 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I certainly miss my severe depression/anxiety at times. Life was *intense* then. Everything constantly hung in the balance of the smallest decision I made. I may be immensely more comfortable and happy now, but things can feel a little mundane.

It is in our nature to remember the good parts and let the bad ones go. Which is a good thing or no one would ever have a second child.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:35 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I've experienced exactly the same thing, and it confuses me just as much, even when I absolutely know, rationally, that it was a bad time in my life I'm yearning for. Similarly, some moments in my life I enjoyed to the full while they were happening have left little or no trace on my memory and emotions.

I can only conclude that we feel nostalgia for life experiences for complex reasons that only partly relate to how nice they were.
posted by stuck on an island at 10:36 AM on March 24, 2010

Well, hardship is a humbling experience. It's often the rock-bottom moments, the times we've lost all control of our circumstances, that life-changing events happen. Some people find God. Some people grow closer to their friends or family than they believed was possible. Some build a resolve of self-reliance and pick themselves up by the bootstraps to power through the bad times. Most probably wrestle with a lot of questions about the universe and themselves; I don't think anybody can escape from true hardship unchanged.

In retrospect, changes like that can (and should) be viewed as times of personal growth. There's nothing wrong with looking fondly at that. Those experiences made you who you are today.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:40 AM on March 24, 2010

But I am interested in the innate power of this very human type of feeling.

Most nostalgia seems to me to be an act of self-deception. The belief that "it was better before" almost always fails to stand up to the facts, but that doesn't change the belief.

I remember thinking even then that I should try to record the moment in my memory to revisit specifically years later to see if that horrible period would still appear gauzy and warm in retrospect and, oddly enough, it did.

There you have it.
posted by three blind mice at 10:40 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sure. It depends on the level of suffering, though.

Part of it is a coping mechanism. If you had a shitty time at school, it's much more palatable for your ego to bury the days when you got wedgied and focus on the sunny days when hotties buzzed round you and marvelled at your skills with the yo-yo. It's also just more sociably acceptable to gloss over crappy times politely like they barely happened.

But also the feeling of pain can be like the feeling of extreme cold or heat. When you don't have it any more it can be hard to recall exactly what it's like. Steve Redgrave, the Olympic rower, was so brutalized by the experience of the effort needed to win his fourth consecutive gold medal he declared in Atlanta, "I've had it. If anyone sees me near a boat they can shoot me.”. He rowed to his fifth gold medal in 2000 in Sydney.

And finally, there is a whole industry built around the idea that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. On that basis, many people look nostalgically back at a difficult time as the making of them.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:42 AM on March 24, 2010

This is almost a cliche about soldiers' nostalgia for war — which may be down to specific factors (intense camaraderie in the face of the risk of death, etc) but is still sort of an example of what you're talking about.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:43 AM on March 24, 2010

On preview I see that Tell Me No Lies made my point first. I wonder if there is a sense of intensity about dark times in our lives, and that is what fuels the nostalgia? I have been blessed to have had very few low moments, but when I had cancer it was important to me to have a keepsake of that time. I collect art glass and bought a piece that is my "cancer glass".

I'm not sure if that's what you're thinking of, but that's my experience.
posted by angiep at 10:47 AM on March 24, 2010

My lay-theory: Even in times of lots of suffering we are able to find joy, which may be even more pronounced because of that suffering. That joy can stay with us and create nostalgia.

I haven't found that I am nostalgic though for the bad parts. Only for the things that were good in the bad time. Lumping large periods of time into "good" or "bad", while obviously applicable in many cases, can be misleading.
posted by ropeladder at 10:49 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, depending on what you mean. As an example, I am deeply 'nostalgic' for the time I lived at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. I miss the way the medicine room looked, the aquariums, having our name called for assessment triage. Not because I love being in the hospital, but because my daughter was alive during that time. The presence of friends and family, the support, the ability to parent - I am nostalgic for THAT stuff. I would vastly prefer that those things had taken place during more positive times.

Life is rarely wholly good or wholly bad - we have romance during war years, a holiday feast even during lean times, a joyful or treasured moment even while the world is falling down around us. Perhaps the contrast - the moment of goodness as an escape from sadness - is more memorable for being rare. It isn't taken for granted.
posted by bunnycup at 10:53 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hardship has a way of making life very simple. Your existence is paired down to its most basic level, trivial things are revealed as such. Maybe a nostalgia for the simplicity?
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 11:00 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I haven't gone through times of *great* suffering, but I did go to high school. I absolutely hated it. I was miserable. I know this. I also know that, as I approach my 10-year reunion mark, this has not made me immune to a certain degree of nostalgia.
posted by dagnyscott at 11:01 AM on March 24, 2010

I recently read the book Nothing to Envy, which is the personal stories of some North Korean defectors. Some of them are nostalgic, not for the famine period (which prompted all of them to escape) but for the pre-famine period, when life was merely incredibly difficult and repressive.

Based on their stories it seems fair to say that hardship is something you might feel nostalgic for. Horror is not.
posted by adamrice at 11:24 AM on March 24, 2010

Sure. The first couple of years I spent living in L.A. were about 95% miserable, but I do sometimes find myself waxing nostalgic for the other 5%.
posted by usonian at 11:39 AM on March 24, 2010

“But we two will drink and feast in the hut, and will take delight each in the other's grievous woes, as we recall them to mind. For in after time a man finds joy even in woes, whoever has suffered much and wandered much.”
— Eumaeus the swineherd, Odyssey 15.398-401

posted by koeselitz at 11:41 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

This seems like it would tie in to this Dan Gilbert Ted Talk, that we are hard-wired to find happiness despite when things don't go as planned. Our psychological immune systems, as he calls it.

Going through my worst times, I found that they made me become a better, wiser person, a feeling that I am nostalgic for sometimes. And the lows made the highs even higher in contrast - pretty flowers in someone's front yard would make my day, whereas now they're forgotten soon after I've walked by. I wish it was still as easy to appreciate the little things with such awe.
posted by lizbunny at 11:50 AM on March 24, 2010

This article (NYT Opinion) is great and is on precisely what you're talking about. The author concludes that we are nostalgic for times in which we are "fully engaged in the business of living," something that is often very true in difficult times.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:55 AM on March 24, 2010

During my sophomore year of college, I was isolated and depressed. It was a miserable time but I have, in the many years since, often find myself missing the solitude of it. I spent the time taking long walks, reading a lot of books, writing in my journal. It was stressful at the time but those aspects of it live in my memory as things I'd like to have again.

I think sometimes it can be hard to settle into "normal" life after a period of drama. Our adoption was dramatic: we matched with a birthmom, she changed her mind; eight months later, we matched again and took custody of the baby; a problem with our home study meant we couldn't bring the baby home across state lines for three stressful expensive weeks; then we were involved in a custody dispute with the birthfather for the better part of two years. It was horrible--all those months of being afraid we'd lose our daughter. And yet it had drama and intensity.

Supposedly it's really common to get depressed after the adoption of a baby, and one theory I've heard is that the years leading up to the adoption were often very difficult ones. You might have spent years having miscarriages and depleting your savings on fertility treatments, or had fall-throughs in the adoption process. And then there's this big drama of getting the baby. And then, suddenly--normal life. Even though you wouldn't say those years were happy times, you might miss the intensity of them. I'm not exactly nostalgic for our custody dispute, and yet now that it's over and resolved in our favor, I'm weirdly not-sorry it happened because, I guess, it's a good story--it's a thing that happened to us. It's something that looms large for me as one of the most significant happenings of my life. I suppose that will fade with time. I wouldn't say I have warm feelings about it, but I go back to it in my mind a lot.
posted by not that girl at 12:09 PM on March 24, 2010

Best answer: The ability to long for bad as opposed to good times is often explained in terms of 'focusing on the good parts of the bad times.' And that's typically explained either by saying that this helps our personalities in some way, or that we're self-indulgent and deceived.

I'm inclined to see nostalgia as being enabled by a simple difference between memory and present consciousness. In the present, I'm preoccupied with planning, worrying about decisions I need to make, and so on. But when I remember high school, which was a time full of even more depressing and anxiety-making considerations and decisions, the clutter of that present-tense consciousness has vanished. What's left is a kind of aesthetic distillation of that time, images and smells and the rough outlines of emotions, minus all the worry and distraction that mires the present. This explains why people say nostalgia feels like it captures the condensed essence of a time, but also why its past strikes us as somehow (too) pure. I'm attributing the 'condensing' or 'purifying' effect to a natural, structural feature of remembering, instead of the rememberer's psychological motivation to whitewash their past.

Anyway, this would also explain the ability to long for seemingly anything, regardless of its content or its subjective goodness at the time. Just as we can appreciate horrific subject matter in art because it's at an aesthetic remove from us, so we can enjoy most parts of our pasts, now that we're free to experience them without being presently involved. There's a quality of consciousness that can only be had when remembering, but there's nothing wrong with wanting to experience a past time in that way. When someone like Chabon (in the above NYT link) says that nostalgia "obliterates the past", it strikes me as weird; like complaining that a portrait obliterates the person.

A side note about nostalgia for the Holocaust: one thing that comes to mind is Imre Kertész's novel Fatelessness, which ends on the note that the camps weren't really so bad. But that can be read as ironic (on the author's if not the narrator's part).
posted by Beardman at 1:45 PM on March 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

To add more support from literature: one of Jane Austen's characters, Anne Elliot, says in Persuasion, "When pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure. One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it."
posted by obliquicity at 6:09 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

As an aside: my fraternal grandmother was in a concentration camp for 39 months and never reminisced in a way that was at all nostalgic. Even more personally, my maternal grandmother was murdered when I was 12, and even though my family has grown closer, the only nostalgia is for things that will never be.

Also, good call, Beardman, on Imre Kertész's Fatelessness. You might want to check out the film that goes along with it, Sorstalanság.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 6:23 PM on March 24, 2010

I sometimes think longingly of the few months I spent a few years back so utterly depressed that I hardly got out of bed for four weeks straight. I don't know if this is the same thing you're talking about, but it has always struck me as odd, seeing as I was completely and utterly miserable during that time, and fantasized quite often about falling asleep and not ever waking up again. I'm in a much better place now, but I do feel sort of nostalgic for it.

After much thought, I suspect that for me the attraction lies in the fact that I had given up. I often teeter on the edge of depression these days, and it takes a lot of effort to be aware of myself, to do all the things I need to do in a day, to take care of myself. The thought of just lying down in bed, of just letting myself sink into that and not having to try anymore... well, it's appealing, in some strange way.

I never feel nostalgic for the rough parts of my childhood that are (along with genetics) the main reason for my struggles with PTSD and depression, however.
posted by rosethorn at 8:07 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

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