Kozlowski: You’re never too young to be nostalgic

By Mark Kozlowski

The dullest stories that can be told usually begin, “When I was your age, back in the good old… The dullest stories that can be told usually begin, “When I was your age, back in the good old days…” This is usually a signal to turn up your iPod, which Grandpa can’t hear anyway, look interested or at least awake, and tune out. This talent of looking interested is mastered at a young age, and your average youth does a better job of it than anyone this side of a spectator at a House hearing featuring Alan Greenspan.

Of course, it’s easy to make wisecracks about the elderly, but back when I was a freshman, when things were simple, when we had to read books and not those newfangled Kindle things, back when education was valued for a change, we had to … hey, wait — look at me when I’m talking to you!

I have found myself becoming somewhat nostalgic recently, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find other upperclassmen feeling the same way. Hell, they do feel the same way. Just listen to them gas on about Steelers riots and G-20 riots and victories against West Virginia. Listen to them talk about Snowmageddon and Luke Ravenstahl and the Tuition Tax of Doom.

As these young geezers demonstrate, there is something universal about nostalgic sentiment. Why? Why do we dwell on the past, even when objectively there isn’t much past to dwell on?

I’m not a psychologist or a philosopher. I’m a chemist. And I long for the days when all science was called Natural Philosophy and all natural philosophers dabbled in everything. So, for old time’s sake, please indulge my dabbling.

A key element of nostalgia is storytelling. These could be the stories we bore other people with or ones that we run over and over again in our heads. This storytelling element may go a long way toward explaining why we sometimes live in the past.

Humans are driven to tell stories, and to enjoy them, almost from birth. As “The Odyssey” or “One Thousand and One Nights” or the Bible demonstrate, this drive transcends time, place and culture. We also never tire of hearing the same story told slightly different ways, as in the case of the flood of Noah and that of “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” or like every Disney sequel you’ve ever seen.

Stories that actually happened, and most importantly, actually happened to us — now those are the most interesting. We are certain to be sympathetic with the major players. As we usually like ourselves, personal accounts have a clear protagonist. Because we are intimately involved with these stories, we empathize. We don’t have to imagine what it was like to be a person in the story. We are one.

Additionally, we best remember stories we were a part of. It is much harder to remember the joke about the guy who did the stuff in the place than it is to remember when I fell into a public fountain in Evanston, Ill., sometime in the summer of 1995.

Stories that form our lives are easy to tell, so we tell them. And as we love to talk, we tell them often.

Of course, when we tell these anecdotes, we don’t have to tell them truthfully. The inherent flexibility of the past is also a reason for nostalgia. We might not be able to influence past events without the help of the writers of “Back to the Future” or “Star Trek,” but we can influence how the events are remembered. We can compare the past to the present while conveniently forgetting that the problems and annoyances that plague us now are essentially timeless, and plagued us then as well.

This flexibility of the past means it takes whatever shape we want it to, and the shape is usually pleasing.

In a tribute to the early days of existentialism, those days that were just so much more meaningless than today, I’ll go out on a limb.

Nostalgia is the result of consciousness of one’s own mortality. Time slips by, and its passage brings us ever closer to our confrontation of the great unknown. So, we cling to our lives for dear life, with a constant desire for yesterday to be today again.

We speak of our pasts also as a guarantee that they will not be forgotten. And when our pasts are not forgotten, we aren’t forgotten either. Finally, at least, our lives have accomplished something!

And, of course, nostalgia speaks to the human desire to live in better times. There are only two directions to look for times that aren’t the present, and the past is one of them. So, a nostalgic is a kind of an “anti-futurist”.

By whatever explanation, nostalgia is a potent emotion that courses through us all. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go pretend to be Henry VIII.

Sadly, nobody writes letters anymore. Write [email protected]

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