Nostalgia Is Your Enemy


Today I want to write about nostalgia. This is something that I’ve had to struggle with on a minor scale in my quest to become a minimalist. I say “minor scale” because I don’t consider myself to be an overly sentimental person or someone who is extremely emotional, although this might make me come across as a person with no feelings, a cold, detached zombie. This is not the case, however. Even though I do value a select few items, I’ve always been the type of person that values memories and experiences above physical items. I did, however, go through a phase where I always bought at least one souvenir from every place I visited, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled more that some people I know. But a few years ago, I started feeling like these worthless trinkets (all made in China, of course, never in the country I was visiting, with the exception of some pottery I bought in Colombia) were just taking up space and not adding real value to my life. I had to clean them, I had to pack them to move (I move quite frequently), and they were weighing me down. At one point I realized I could still remember the great times I had in those countries/states without having a visual reminder sitting on that shelf – a visual reminder that needed to be cleaned or dusted off every week. And don’t get me started on the money spent on those trinkets that probably could’ve financed a trip or two. But years before I decided to become a minimalist, I learned I could let go of these items and still remember the good times they represented. Now, when I travel, I stay away from gift shops and souvenir stands. Memories and (digital) pictures are all I need. Yes, I’m an avowed souvenir/trinket/knickknack hater.

Nostalgia is defined by Dictionary.com as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time”. This is something I’ve noticed to be a major roadblock to many people as they embark on the journey to let go of the things that are weighing them down in life so they can actually *live* their lives. Many possessions feel like responsibilities that must be carried forward (oftentimes literally) in life, and too many people can’t break free from them because of guilt. Guilt – that ugly, ugly word. With society telling us we have to follow certain stages in life and our family pressuring us to “do good” and “make them proud”, guilt can be a lifelong partner of sorts. We learn to deal with it and even though we try to deny it, it rules us and holds us back and limits us. It’s probably worse than fear, and fear is bad enough.

Watching the TV series “Hoarders” has reinforced in me the absolute urgency of severing the sentimentality and guilt that creeps up every now and then and threatens to undo the progress I’ve made so far. Seeing how these smart, caring, nice people become trapped (literally) by their fears and guilt is almost too painful to watch, but it’s a learning experience, a lesson in how you can become immobilized by a feeling that has been kept hidden too long without dealing with it and exposing the root cause of it. Seeing a mother hold on to stacks of paper plates from her child’s first birthday party (when that child is now 35) and hearing her say that to this day she believes that if she throws the plates away, she’s in essence throwing her son away, just broke my heart. How does a material thing (disposable paper plates!) develop that kind of power over a human being? It’s almost impossible to understand, but such is the allure of “stuff”, coupled with nostalgia.

I once read an article about this and it mentioned people living with items that were “bestowed” upon them by older relatives (some of them deceased) and how they felt they HAD to keep these items, because “Aunt Marge” gave them to her. The article went on to ask: Do you really think that Aunt Marge will turn over in her grave if you give away her precious china which you keep in a (heavy) box in the basement and lug around every time you move? I would add to that question: Do you really think she will even FIND OUT if you do? Everybody has different views on what happens after death, and some people may think that their dearly departed relatives literally ARE watching over them and seeing everything, but I tend to disagree. Keeping and carrying around boxes of stuff for someone who has passed on seems sad and defeatist to me. By the same token, holding on to items because they remind us of past events can be akin to walking around in chains, if these items actually prevent us from achieving our dreams. I firmly believe that if something is proudly displayed in the home because it brings back joyful memories of a past event or person that has moved on, then it’s not a burden. But if that item is sitting in a box in your attic or your basement or (even worse) a storage facility, you may want to reconsider why it is that you’re holding on to it.

It’s never an easy thing to do, especially when some family members or even friends may not understand your motives and may criticize you for doing so, but they cannot feel your sense of longing for a life you know you can live and desperately want to live, because they are content with the way their lives are. You’re not like them, you’re a minimalist, you’re an adventure-seeker, you’re a “life-liver”. You want more out of life, and you deserve that better, more fulfilling, exuberant life. But, unbeknownst to you, nostalgia and sentimentality might be holding you back.

Yes, nostalgia is your enemy, my enemy, our enemy. Left unchecked and uncontrolled, nostalgia will blossom and invade everything like a cancer or a virus. It will paralyze you, leaving you longing for yesterday, for something that once was but is now gone, something that happened in the past and is therefore better left in the past.

I don’t want to live in the past. I don’t want to wish for “the good old times”. I want to live in the NOW and enjoy my life NOW, and make plans for the FUTURE, a future I will create for myself and those I love and care deeply about. This is my manifesto.

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11 thoughts on “Nostalgia Is Your Enemy

  1. Okay Rick. Have you been sneaking around my house and listening to thoughts and words lately?

    You literally just described the two things I’m having a hard time getting rid of.

    1. The birthday cards my children received for their birthdays. (Yes, plural. Not just from their first birthdays.)

    2. My grandmother’s china that has been sitting in my basement for 11 years. I’ve NEVER brought it up.

    When I mentioned to my mom last week that I was planning to get rid of my grandma’s china I’ve been storing, she flipped out. There’s the guilt you mentioned.

    I’ve decided that since my cousin is getting married soon, I’ll offer the china to her. If she doesn’t want it, I’m getting rid of it anyways.

    In fact, other than our Christmas tree, there isn’t a single thing in our basement I would miss.

    1. Wow, that’s kinda scary, isn’t it? We’re definitely connected here.

      I’ve always been a little detached from heirlooms (I guess I would call them that) but I still struggle with other things. I have one of those artist-painted tiles that I bought in Spain, (completely worthless but very nice-looking) which is actually up on my wall but I’m this close to taking a picture of it and ditching it too. The memories are still fresh in my mind (11 years later), so why does this little painted tile have so much power over me? I have to let it go.

      I hear you loud and clear about the china. I guess your mom’s reaction was expected. Would she be willing to keep them instead? My mom still has her cherished china set which was a wedding gift 50 years ago, but she is fully aware I have no interest in keeping it. Hers is displayed but NEVER used. It’s a strange phenomena.

      About the cards, that’s totally understandable. Would you be able to keep them in a nice box or tin made especially for them? Or if there’s just many of them, could you cull them and keep two or three from each child/year and put those in a nice keepsake box? Or have you considered scanning them in high definition and then shredding them? If you have an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, you can look them up anytime, anywhere, using iDisk or DropBox. That might be an option.

      I’ve read of a lot of minimalists who have taken pictures of cherished mementos they just cannot carry with them anymore (majority of them because they’re traveling around the world) and then they let them go. I might end up doing that with some of my items.

      Good luck!!!

      P.S. I changed the title and added two paragraphs at the end of my post, and I think I might’ve done that after you commented. Take a look! 🙂

      1. Ha, ha. Yep. They’re my enemy alright! And the more I talk about holding on to those birthday cards, the sillier it seems. I really don’t feel all that attached to them. I was keeping them in case either of my sons ever wanted them. Yeah, I can hear it now, “Gee, thanks for the old paper clutter mom. You shouldn’t have.” 🙂

        I like your idea to offer the china to my mom if my cousin doesn’t want it. That way I’ll be able to unload it guilt-free — no matter how it exits my life!

        And taking a digital photograph of your picture is good idea. I’m planning to that with my mementos that I feel I’ll want to look at from time to time.

  2. Rick,
    We have met the enemy and it is nostalic clutter! So says any of us living a more minimalistic life! We scanned several things, took pictures, etc. And I can tell you the picture can evoke just as strong a memory as can holding the object. Maybe for a Mom like Jenny a carefully edited, modern version of a baby book could be created online by scanning photos, baby gift cards, announcements and birthday cards. The wave of the future is probably going to be nostalgia driven member sites that we can upload our emotional lives to!

    1. That’s right, Gena, the (digital, LOL) picture can trigger the same memories and good feelings as the actual object, because it’s our brain that connects with that memory. That’s so true. And your idea for Jenny sounds fantastic; if I had kids I would definitely do that. Nostalgia-driven websites will probably be huge once more people discover the cloud and feel confident enough to put their valued memories there. Great observation. Thanks for stopping by again! Aloha!!!

  3. Hey Rick, sorry for the quicky misspell, no less. We’ve been using our Gmail folders for a lot of that storage our own DIY cloud you could say, though we do have a sugar sync acct. It’ll be interesting to see what all of this evolves to! We look forward to seeing you next year and we’ll plan a cloud storage solution for all event pics! 🙂

  4. LOL, Gena, I actually was emphasizing the fact that I only think in terms of *digital* pictures, not paper pictures. 🙂 Don’t worry about misspellings, LOL.

    I’m using a combination of Apple iDisk and Google Docs also (in addition to Gmail), but basically it’s because I cant make up my mind which one I like the most! I’m also thinking of signing up with SugarSync. A friend of mine is an affiliate so I’m trying to decide which plan I should get and then take the plunge.

    I’m planning for next year already! And since you already use Gmail, you might want to try Picasa, it’s pretty good. 🙂

  5. Hey Rick, it’s interesting how people are dealing with sentimental clutter lately. I have to admit, I am a bit of a sentimental hoarder (ok NOTHING compared to those people on the tv show) but still…

    I am definitely wanting to declutter and get rid of stuff, but I also tend to get attached to things bc of that value. It sounds totally creepy, the mother holding onto the plates from her son’s party, but in a milder way, I do the same thing. Little things that were given to me by someone from my past or present are difficult for me to part with, bc in a sense I feel as if I am rejecting them in some way. Is that creepy too? If it is, I’ll stop it right now! lol

    1. Hi Marianney!

      It’s so awesome to have you here! Thanks for stopping by.

      Yes, sentimental attachments can be so hard to overcome. It’s a combination of nostalgia, guilt, longing for the past, and a certain je ne sais quoi that we can’t pinpoint, but is just *there* and won’t let us move on. It’s very difficult indeed, especially when your family or even your friends make you feel like you’re literally throwing them away or betraying the memory of a loved one who probably wanted you to move on anyway. Our human condition betrays us constantly, but we can break free. Memories are the best souvenirs, and we can replay them on demand, anytime, 24/7. Now that is truly the best souvenir.

      Good luck in your journey, and do come back repeatedly!!! 😀

      Rick

  6. Interesting post and people can take it too far(like they can with anything really) but I don’t think I agree with “nostalgia is your enemy”
    I very much enjoy going back in time now and then and remembering friends/family that have passed on, and memories associated with them. Thinking about places we used to explore as kids that are no longer there(and once or twice every few years take a trip back to those old stomping grounds)
    I don’t feel like it’s harmful in any way, and makes me a bit more thankful to have such great memories. I place no value in stuff and all my memories are either in my head or digitized 🙂
    Anyways- thanks for writing, it’s good food for thought!

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