Skipping Down the Cobblestones . . . Ah, Nostalgia

I was thinking about nostalgia today.

The problem with grad school (yes, it relates) is that you get this critical voice in your head. Not a good critical voice, mind, but a nasty, critical voice that thinks everything is a sham and that people shouldn't like TV and that nothing good every happened to anyone. It'll fade with time, but for now, it's omnipresent.

It's not always a horrible thing. I spend a lot of time arguing with it which helps me to refine my particular oppositional perspective. Until I get sick of the whole thing and think exasperatingly, "Entertainment is just entertainment." But nothing will lighten the seriousness of the self-appointment seriousees. You just have to walk away. Which I will when I graduate. So there. Nahnahnahnah.

Anyway, I was thinking about nostalgia today, and how the Harriet Beecher Stowe-like reminiscences of yesteryear were very much like my childhood. I had the big Thanksgivings and the present/tree-filled snowy Christmases and the huge backyard where we played Capture the Flag and Hide 'n' Seek. I had an Elizabeth Enright childhood.

The critical voice insists that I didn't really have all those things, I just thought I did. Really, what with pesticides in the air and the zooming divorce rate and intercity problems and Reagan as president, I must be kidding myself. Not to mention all the problems of belonging to the 70s as well as being a baby boomer product as well as being a baby boomer myself (yes, it is possible if your parents grew up during the Depression, got married in their mid-twenties and had you in 1971). I can just imagine the scorn: "Oh, you had a happy childhood while people were starving all over the world."

And I immediately thought, But I wasn't happy. If anything, I was a worried kid. And I think that here the critical voice has a point, except for the wrong reason. It isn't that I had a bad childhood. I had a rather bizarrely good one. It's that children, like pets, don't actually experience happiness. They are too busy reacting to the world around them. All that sensory input. All that change, growth, hormone spurts here and there (rehearsal for the big rollercoaster of teenagehood). The memory of happiness occurs in retrospect. Which doesn't make the memory wrong. Or right. I also happen to think that angst and unhappiness occurs in retrospect (on CSI a couple of weeks back, Sarah was describing her horrible childhood to Grissom, abusive parents, etc., and she said, "I didn't know that other people had different lives," or words to that effect. "I didn't know that all families weren't like mine.")

As we go through life, we choose, reality-show-wise, what pieces of our past to remember, to organize, to publish. Which doesn't mean those things didn't happen. The point is not that everything we experience is in the eye of the beholder, the point is that the emotions of past events (happiness or fear or dread) are thrust backwards onto those events. We identify and label the emotion content of our memories. But since we are doing this in the future, a great deal of confabulation (great word, by the way) takes place, and the emotional content becomes more of a present-day creation than a real memory.

The lost memory people would claim that this confabulation is due to repression, and there were a bunch of movies in the 40s/50s (The Three Faces of Eve, Spellbound) where people would face their repressed fears and whop bang, get better. But I'm not convinced that emotion is something that we acknowledge while we are feeling it. In Documents in the Case, Sayers has Munting say, "This proves that we think in actual words," and in Screwtape Letters (and elsewhere), Lewis claimed that the moment we begin to analyze an event or emotion, we are no longer experiencing it. Or at least, not in the same way. Emotion has no language. It's just hormones, reaction, the numbed brain, the relaxed muscles. Then the brain gets to work trying to make sense of it, trying to cope with it, thinking about it.

So, yes, probably our childhoods were neither as wonderful or as rotten as we imagine them to be. I would argue that the "everything was terrible" folks miss the boat almost as much as the "simpler, better times" folks because what matters isn't the quality of life, what matters is the use we make of it. It's no accident that during my "happy" childhood, I had little to no interest in the Cold War despite the fact that I was a kid who worried a lot. I worried about the big things, like God and death. The Cold War simply didn't measure up. Of course, it was going on. My parents probably talked about it. Other people certainly did. My friends did. But I never believed the Soviet Union was going to bomb us or that we were going to bomb the Soviet Union. And I was right.

Twenty-five odd years later, I still refuse to do a Chicken Little and freak out over THE END OF EVERYTHING, THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WORLD, THE HORROR, THE HORROR. That particular fear has never worked as an escape hatch for me. I'm still going to have to pay my bills tomorrow, darn it. Which is why I make a lousy environmentalist.

So, just to drive the "it's all in the environment" people nuts, did my childhood reaction to the Cold War influence my later reactions in life? Or rather, did I develop these reactions by choice and then use my childhood environment to explain them? (Just for the record, I consider "it's all in the genetics" to be a variant of "it's all in the environment.") That is, how much of our free-will do we dismiss because we don't want to face the fact that everything we do is ultimately by choice: the lives we lead, the places we end up, the attitudes we develop, the bad and good things that occur to us? Wouldn't it be terrifying to learn that, in fact, the life we have is all our self-creation, like a piece of sculpture or art? Something we have crafted based entirely on our personal desires, even the bad stuff? I don't mean this in the "we should be responsible for our actions" sense. We should, but right now, I mean this in the "we get what we want out of life" sense. If we think life is a big, chaotic mess, it becomes a big, chaotic mess. If we think we are beleagured victims who have been hurt by others, we become beleagured victims. Not because we see ourselves that way but because we actually, non-relatively, mold ourselves into being what we imagine.

Or not, as the case may be.

CATEGORY: HISTORY & LEARNING

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