The Bittersweet Comfort of the Past

Today is the second post of a 2-part series on Nostalgia by Katha. If you missed last week’s post take a look at “What a computer screen can and cannot do for our nostalgia.” posted last Thursday. This piece is longer than most but well worth the read so grab a cup of tea or coffee and lean into it!

Nostalgia

The bittersweet comfort of the past by Katha

“Of all the ways of using history, nostalgia is the most general, looks the most innocent, and is perhaps the most dangerous” – Malcolm Chase

Since early childhood my life has been shaped my movement, transition, and goodbyes. My father’s job as a nurse and missionary has led my family all over Germany and beyond. When I was twelve, my parents decided to move to Uganda to work at a small dispensary; even though I was against it at first, I fell in love with this country as soon as I set foot on its soil. The people, their kind hearts, and their joy despite harsh living conditions became an enrichment and inspiration for me. Quite abruptly we had to say goodbye after only two years and moved back to Germany; re-entry was difficult and exhausting because I had left the country as a child and returned as an adult, feeling completely lost in the German teenage culture. Many times I would go back to Uganda in my dreams and imagine how everything there was so much better than surviving here. Being nostalgic about what I had left behind appeared to be an innocent and very comforting way to escape my miserable present, as Malcolm Chase describes.

The phenomenon of longing for home is probably as old as humanity. One could think of biblical times, when the Israelites mourned the harsh working conditions in Egypt and longed for the return to the Promised Land Canaan. One could refer to ancient literature like the pastorals by Vergil, praising the idyll of simple life in the countryside. People felt melancholic, sad, or homesick – they just never labeled it as ‘nostalgia’.

The term came into being in 1688, when the only 20-year old Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer wrote his medical dissertation about nostalgia and homesickness. The term derives from the Greek ηoστος (nostos: return home) and αλγια (algia: longing), which describes a sad mood and constant longing for one’s native land. Many people at that time – soldiers, students, or servants – suffered from it. Home for these people was a geographical place, and as soon as things from home were missing they became obsessed with one thought only: to return home, the place where they would feel safe and comforted.

In the middle of the 19th century things changed.  Cities became the sites of industrial, transportation and communication revolution. People from all over the world streamed into these new centers to make quick money and get a glimpse of modernity. However, when the first wave of excitement and wonder wore off people realized the downside of modernization: cities were noisy, long working hours drained their energy, and life had lots its quality. People realized that all kinds of praised technology were only technical after all and could not substitute human beings or relationships. They longed for intense and real encounter again, experience instead of knowledge. And this is where the problem began that I still try to wrap my head around today: you cannot travel back in time. People thought if they could only go back home everything would be alright and things were like they used to be. Many did go home, back to the rural areas in the West or even crossing the Atlantic for their home countries, but they often had painful realizations:

“Upon travelling back, however, they found they had not arrived, and never could, for the same technologies that had brought them home had also disrupted traditional ways of life. Home was gone, lost in the past. And while space could be traversed, time could not” (Susan Matt).

Homesickness for a home that could never come back quickly gave way to a sentiment that TCKs are quite familiar with: nostalgia. To cling to what they had lost in an innocent way, people preserved traditions, celebrated their heritage, and promoted culture. Towns hosted Homecoming Weeks for urban residents to return to their homesteads, ancestors were worshipped with a revived passion, and people from the city came to the countryside to experience a holiday in the style of “the good ol’ days”.

TCKs might have to take several planes to visit the places again they refer to as home and their memories might not be linked to one specific location but spread across the globe – nevertheless, they might be able to relate to a few nostalgic notions. Whenever we have to leave a place we say our goodbyes and our brain tells us that no matter when we come back, it will never look the same. We will move on and our friends we leave behind will grow up, too. And yet, our heart seems to take one last snapshot of the places and faces we have come to love – this is the image we’ll store inside of us and bring to life whenever we think of that place. This is how we want to remember it.

Even though I slowly adjusted to German life again, I could not wait to return to Africa one day. After I had graduated from high school I was given the chance to go back, but now something interesting happened: I suddenly hesitated to go back to Uganda because I was afraid I would destroy the perfect illusion I had created over the years. What if everything was so different to how I had preserved it in my mind? What if my childhood memories turned out to be a lot bleaker in reality than in my dreams? Suddenly, nostalgia was not only innocent comfort, but also showed me the limits of remembering.

As much comfort as nostalgia seems to promise our homesick-stricken hearts, there is a bittersweet note to it that we should keep in mind. Have you ever thought about what you remember best about your childhood in country xy, or growing up in place z? Most of our experiences seem to have been positive because our memory seems to be manipulated: it filters out the bad memories and strengthens the happy ones that will create a falsified, beautified, and maybe even simplified, version of the past. Living with or in a past that never existed that way can be rather dangerous. We might be so tied to what has seemingly been that we don’t even see what is right in front of us. The present is just unbearable for us, so we use the past as an escape and comfort. Starting college in a country you have never lived in apart from furlough, struggling with a culture you’re supposed to be part of, or having a hard time opening up to new friends can be just so exhausting – why not take a trip down memory lane and stay there, where everything is known and easy? Well, it’s not. It is an illusion our mind tries to sell us, which will eventually blind us to the see beauty in the present, and even worse, bind us to move on into an exciting future.

So how can we make nostalgia a meaningful part of our lives? The other day I was sitting in a class on African Literature when my professor startled me with the following questions: How do you define yourself? If you only look backwards, do you define yourself only by what you’re missing? I think the feeling of missing is a key element of a TCK’s emotional mindset. It can be a wonderful reminder of the beautiful places and wonderful people who have enriched our lives and shaped our worldview. But it should not hold us back from allowing new places and people to have the chance of having yet another impact on our lives. We’ve been given and have experienced far too much that we could ever define ourselves by everything we do NOT have.

I have lived in South Africa and the United States, made wonderful new memories, and took away things and people to remember. Movement and countless goodbyes have made me question issues like home or rootedness. Pictures, videos, songs or Skype calls help to treasure the people I have come to love or experiences I have made. And yet, I am still struggling to wrap my head around the different worlds I have seen and had to leave behind. How they can all exist next to each other, while I can only be in one. To this day I have not returned to Uganda. But reflecting on nostalgia, its bitter sweetness AND its comfort, have made me want to take that journey.

Have you struggled with living in the past, unwilling or unable to live in the present? How have you worked through this? 

3 thoughts on “The Bittersweet Comfort of the Past

  1. Thank you, Katha. Both your articles are very though provoking. As an adult third-culture person, I have experienced much of what you are saying. In coming back to the town where I was born and lived until I left for college at 18, I felt as if the place and the people had hardly changed, but my horizons had expanded so much that I could hardly fit into it. I think the adjustments were made easier years ago because of the lack of instant communication we have now. One was almost forced to live in the present, even while cherishing the memories and keeping up contact with snail mail letters. Don’t misunderstand – the Internet and facetime and phone connections have made it possible for us to keep in touch in ways we never dreamed were possible, and I thank God for all of it, and the good that comes with it. But it often slows down the person from settling into a new present life.

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    1. O yes, that feeling of an expanded horizon is so true! And it is so easy to judge people for not having the same instead of trying to expand our horizon yet again by living in the present, small town again.
      Yes, technology has its good and bad sides…I guess it’s a challenge for everyone, not just TCKs, but they might be affected in particular. Definitely interesting how this will play out!

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