Thursday, June 20Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986


Nostalgia: from the Greek Nostos meaning “return home” and Algos meaning “pain”. The word literally means the ‘suffering evoked by the desire to return to one’s place of origin’. Of course, today the word takes on a different meaning, yet there is definitely something to be said about the pain of looking back. 

The complex emotion of nostalgia often depends on our experience of the present. It’s ironic how a concept all about the past can be completely dictated by the present, and the prospect for the future. At times it can be hard to think back to a time when things were less complicated, less lonely, less painful – or just less. Knowing how good things once were can show you just how far you’ve fallen. It can make it seem impossible to claw your way back to that happy place. The present can make nostalgia become a reminder of torment and loss. 

Then again, do we not romanticise the ‘good old days’? Those times when a Freddo was a reasonable price. When your main worry was what your parents had packed for your lunch. 

We make the past seem better than it was, a little rosier, more worthy of our longing. 

Perhaps we do it to make ourselves feel better, or the pain of the past slowly fades with time until we are only left with the ‘good’. Like a mother who keeps breaking the promise she made to herself, never to go through the pain of childbirth again. Or like when you forget that just a month ago you swore you were done with education, but now you’re applying for a Masters. 

We use the past to dictate how we feel about our experiences. On one hand, how can we assess the present without comparing it to what came before? How do we tell if we are happy without comparing it to that time we were distraught? Is there even a way to comprehend the post Covid-19 era without the comparison to the pre Covid-19 era? 

But how do we manage expectations? Are we just holding ourselves back, trying to recreate something that can never be the same again? Longing for feelings, experiences and relationships that only have a place in the past. When we decide to go back to an ex, are we looking to create a new future or recreate the past? Hoping for familiarity from someone who is now a completely different person is like looking for the comfort of your childhood home after it has been rebuilt. 

Often, we paint nostalgia as a warm friend. Memories in sepia tone with that aesthetic vintage border. The very illusion of past perfection. We forget the pain that is in its very essence; the longing it invokes that cannot be recreated. The pain of looking back on the ‘good old days’ during times that seem far from good. We need to unclasp ourselves from the grip of this romantic past that keeps us from looking forward and stops us from appreciating the present until it becomes another memory. 

Perhaps the present and future are nothing without the past, but the past cannot fully dictate the future without keeping us in mind-forged fetters, preventing us from accessing the full potential of our future.  

Image Credit: Jon Tyson via Unsplash