Nostalgia is a Disease

Originally, nostalgia was a mental disease: homesickness so profound it rocked people to their very cores and left them unable to function. The illness was considered a particular danger for soldiers serving far from home. Today nostalgia’s origins as a disorder are forgotten. Profound longing for the past is not only normalized, it is celebrated.

Nostalgia is a combination of the Greek nostos, homecoming, and algos, pain. The word was coined in 1688 by a Swiss physician to describe a dangerous longing for the familiar. Soldiers seem to have been particularly susceptible to the malady. Its unfortunate victims were often subjected to unorthodox treatments, and French doctor Jourdan Le Cointe felt sufferers responded best to “pain and terror.”

Perhaps Le Cointe went a bit too far. Especially since nostalgia carries its own punishment. When we idolize the past, we pay the price. We cannot dwell in the past without sacrificing our future. This is true not only in our personal lives, but in our society as well.

This is nowhere more evident than in the recent events in Charlottesville, spurred by the presence of a Confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee. The parade of torch-bearing white supremacists eager to defend this historic figure is a stark reminder of  the profound social sickness nostalgia can represent.

Not all nostalgia is bad

Of course, not all nostalgia is bad. We all have fond memories, as nations – and as individuals – that lend familiarity and comfort to our lives. I smile when I think of the first time I met my husband, or when I recall my children’s first steps.

But I’m careful about enshrining memories in my life. Because clinging too tightly to them can rob me of the ability to appreciate the present.

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.
– Henry David Thoreau

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