Reflections on the past to guide the present: A personal essay

Illustration of a person sitting and admiring many old photos, by Jason Yen.
Jason Yen/Staff

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My bedroom walls serve as a glimpse into moments from the past. The hodgepodge of Polaroid pictures, postcards and magazine cutouts taped onto my walls, while, in some sense, are only simple pieces of paper, all hold deep sentimental value to me. In one of my favorite photos from last summer, I’m laughing with my friends as we wander through the streets of San Francisco. Ticket stubs from art museums I’ve visited with my family and handwritten letters from high school friends are highlight reels of the memories I share with the people I appreciate.

Whether it is listening to a song or revisiting your hometown that reminds you of an oddly specific memory, nostalgia is most likely an emotion you’ve commonly experienced. It’s a universal emotion embedded in our everyday lives that pulls us to our past through sentimental trinkets, physical places and memories of past experiences. Nostalgia is a brief, yet powerful, emotion that romanticizes valued moments from our past or reflects on what could have been.

In the last seven months, as days feel like they blur together, I’ve found myself drawn to my past more than usual, relishing in memories that evoke feelings of familiarity and warmth. According to an article in the journal “Frontiers in Psychology,” nostalgia is a social emotion, one that primarily relies on the relationships between others and meaningful life events. Especially during times when we are often isolated from human interaction, it makes sense that we are more inclined to find solace in our cherished memories of our past.

I wish to relive those seemingly insignificant moments of sitting at a coffee shop with a friend, or frantically cramming before my midterm at Main Stacks, or those long gone experiences with friends who I no longer keep in touch with or places that I used to live.

Nostalgia can serve a forward-looking purpose in times of isolation, too, increasing optimism, inspiration, social efficacy and feelings of purpose in life. Although I long for the past, that warm, fuzzy feeling makes me hopeful for the memories and valuable experiences that the future holds.

In the last seven months, as days feel like they blur together, I’ve found myself drawn to my past more than usual, relishing in memories that evoke feelings of familiarity and warmth.

For some reason, I’ve also felt inclined to look back on my more distant past. I found myself reaching out to old friends from high school or middle school, some of whom I hadn’t talked to in years. I recently reconnected with a friend from middle school whom I hadn’t seen since then, and we reminisced over times when we were obsessed with reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I’ve rediscovered the world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” when it came to Netflix a few months ago. It reminds me of my childhood, when I avidly watched the series with my younger brother after coming home from school. Though many of these moments are long gone, it felt comforting to relive them and to have a newfound appreciation for those small, fleeting moments.

While nostalgia can feel reassuring during challenging times, a different study found that the effects of nostalgia may elicit more negative feelings of loneliness. It’s sometimes painful realizing that those moments and our past selves can never come back. My middle school friend now lives across the country, and our times together only exist as fragments in my memory. My brother and I have both grown and matured since we were carefree children. Looking back on the past often evokes a feeling of emptiness, a longing to relive those simpler times. Sometimes, nostalgia can be accompanied by a sense of remorse for not truly taking advantage of what we had in the past but no longer have in the present.

Though many of these moments are long gone, it felt comforting to relive them and to have a newfound appreciation for those small, fleeting moments.

To me, nostalgia is certainly a complex emotion, a bittersweet feeling that is a reconciliation between simultaneous emotions of comfort and loss. Despite the sense of consolation it provides and the capacity it holds to strengthen human connections, nostalgia can also amplify feelings of isolation. These contrasting psychological evaluations studying the impacts of nostalgia emphasize its complexity and the difficulty in fully understanding it.

Although nostalgia pulls us into the past, it can also help reorient ourselves to the future. As time continues to push forward, I’ll continue to capture valued moments by taking photos and collecting paper mementos to hang up on my wall. Looking back on the past, I hope to savor and appreciate the time I spend with the people I care about today.

Contact Megan Chai at [email protected].