Engineering Nostalgia



Have you ever noticed that a certain song, or a certain smell, or a certain taste invariably brings back vivid memories of a certain period of time from your past? I’ve been aware of this sensation for a long time now, as long as I can even remember. There are still songs and smells and tastes that momentarily invoke such intense memories of childhood or, most profoundly of all, my years spent in the height of my junior high school years where I was most happy with a specific group of friends and adventures. I cherish these tenuous ties with the past, and I’ve come to realize, sadly, that they will only fade with time. My hope is that the most meaningful among them will always persist. Perhaps the most deeply engraved of them will always provide this nostalgic effect, however brief it may be each time, because they’ve managed to dig themselves a burrow some level below the threshold of passing memories. I am convinced that those sensory ties which somehow become attached to individual memories are one of the most powerful links to be utilized in making sure that the most cherished memories of all can be held onto, can be nestled into rightful burrows of their own so as not to ever be lost altogether.

I think one of the problems is that the memories themselves will continue to age as one grows older, persistently crowded out by newer, fresher memories in each moment, and the relevance that the sense which is tied to them has will continue to be spread over more and more more-current experiences. Realizing this, I’ve made efforts to isolate those particular senses which I’ve recognized are linked in this way. A particular Glade air freshener (Hawaiian Breeze, I believe) still never fails to bring me back into my dear friend Dave’s old room in Cheyenne and so I will never  use it myself. I’m afraid that the aroma will begin to attach itself to the present day, and gradually remove itself from those precious memories. But picking it up off the shelf and inhaling its sweet fragrance will always put me back into those cherished times, into that beloved room and into those dear memories and into the fun-filled company of a friend so favored. Left to such few and far between indulgences, the link should remain strong, and I can always rely on it to transport me at my whim.

Another powerful example is any of many songs that I used to listen to consistently for a certain period. But every time I listen to one of these songs now, its relevance shifts at least very slightly into this moment, becoming bit by bit more attached to a more current time frame. Even so, many songs still provide this most enjoyable sensation, even as I continue to enjoy them. Some songs I’ve already realized have lost most of their relevance into the past, yet even so every now and then one of these songs still manages to transport me so vividly into a memory. There must be some subtle factors which continue to play a role, perhaps a certain emotional state or an extra sense such as smell, which still even today invoke the nostalgia at its deepest. And some songs, the ones at the very height of this power, have hardly even faded at all even though I still put them on all the time. They’ve managed to stand the test of time even still, even when I’ve enjoyed them countless times throughout the years, even though I’ve experienced so many new memories in their presence. They still take me back, still hold that original link. I am so grateful for this. These examples are definitely the most deeply held, the ones persistently refusing to be outdone in the present.

Taste is a tougher case; I think this might be (for me, at least) because there are not very many examples of unique-enough tastes that are specific to a narrow time period. There are a few, though. The first that comes to mind is a certain flavor of Doritos (at the time it was a “mystery” flavor, I think it ended up being cheeseburger or something similar) which when I have happened to find them again strikingly reminds me of a certain time period several few years back when I was playing a new game and eating lots of them. Another example is candy corn, which never fails to put me back into the mind of myself as a child enjoying the treasures of a long Halloween trek.

I wonder often whether some of these particularly powerful nostalgic links will continue to persist even as I join the ranks of the elderly. So far some of them seem so much more deeply ingrained into my mind, and I sincerely hope that I can hold on to these fantastically enjoyable experiences. I’ve thought long and hard about where this phenomenon originates, how it’s formed and how it can be retained as best as possible, and I think I’ve gotten a pretty good idea about how to keep them close, and even help to create new ones, most efficiently.

I’ve developed a strategy for willfully creating this phenomenon. I call it “engineering nostalgia.” For me this whole concept has been most powerful in relation to a certain clearly-defined and memorable timeframe of the past (not so easy to anticipate at the time) and, more specifically and controllably, in relation to more trivial things like playing a certain video game or listening to a certain album. If the video game or album is new to your experience, it is for good reason much easier to coordinate complementary senses to go along with them. What I’ve learned to do is this: when you begin playing a new game (or reading a new book, or visiting a new place), also buy a new CD (or at least begin playing one that you haven’t listened much of). The closer they coincide as brand-new experiences, the better the effect. If you can get hold of both a new game and a new CD at the same time, and begin experiencing them simultaneously, this is the ideal situation. For extra effect also buy a new air freshener and a new flavor of some snack, such as Doritos, you’ve never had before and combine them all.

So put in the new CD (and the new air freshener, and open up the bag of chips) as you begin playing this new game. Further down the road, even years and years later, any one of your senses, randomly reminded of any one of these sensations, will bring you back to this time period when you were playing this game and listening to this album and breathing in this aroma and tasting this snack and you can bask in the resulting nostalgia. It is a wonderful thing, made even more wonderful when you can willfully induce it.

Of course, playing a new video game is just one example of a time when you can anticipate a nostalgic bond able to be formed. There are many, many others, if you are careful enough to provide for them, such as a vacation to a new place or moving into a new house or buying a new car or beginning a new hobby. The possibilities are practically endless, because it really comes down to anything that’s new enough in our experience to be so impressionable. And the base act doesn’t even need to be new to you, it just seems easier to me. But maybe the secondary influence is what’s new. You might have been going for nightly walks for months already, but if you have a new album in your mp3 player then further down the road of life those songs are very likely going to bring you back to those walks, to the times when you were just getting to know those songs, and you will miss those times. You will long to be on that very same walk again, wishing you could experience it for the first time all over again.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, I’ve come to find. This feeling of such deep familiarity and longing seems to be not necessarily due to the belief that a certain timeframe was so “good,” but simply because it is gone. It is familiar, we know exactly what came of it, whether good or bad, and there is comfort in this. Even the not-so-good memories sometimes invoke this feeling. There are some periods of time that my rational mind would never even consider revisiting because of how rough I know and remember them to have been—but when some sense is spontaneously stimulated in just the right way to invoke the memory, I cannot deny the nostalgia. Part of me longs to be back in this time despite my avoidance, despite the knowledge deep within myself that I did not enjoy it. But it would be comforting even so, I realize, even if only because I know that things turned out alright, I survived to the present with a healthy grasp of new learning experiences, because this particular memory had its particular impact on the present. On the other hand, both the present and future are perpetually shrouded in mystery and we are always anxious for it to some degree, which I think works to reinforce the longing for the past. We don’t have the comfort of knowing how the future turns out like we do with previous events. But there is beauty in this mystery, as well—the future holds immeasurable possibilities that we humans alone have the ability attempt to foresee rationally and, most importantly, to shape so according to our desires.

Time may flow invariably and without the slightest bit of consideration for us measly human beings, but we can and must fill it with as much as each individual among us possibly can, and achieve the grandest impact as is our power to achieve. By whatever means necessary this must be done to truly make our mark. Impacts can come in so many forms, from a simple smile that influenced someone else in some positive way, to a deep conversation with a friend which helps them see something more clearly, to a bestselling book that millions upon millions of people read and are affected by, to an everlasting friendship that works to profoundly shape the futures that two people share together and independently because of the impacts they have on each other, to so many countless other possibilities. It’s impossible to know what random trivial or heartfelt acts might be the positive influence somebody needed at that moment. The beauty that is life is in our power to influence, at least to some degree—and every single last moment is precious beyond the most poetic words anyone could possibly put to them. Any means that you have in your power to engineer the nostalgia which is so powerful in appreciating the life you have lived is incredibly useful, and I believe should be passionately fought for. This may be as simple as putting forth the effort to realize that recent events are special and unique enough to warrant the extra care in uniting them with a carefully considered added element so that you can utilize this connection farther down the road. You can bring the joyful moments of your past back to you so much more readily if you have attached something special to them at the time.

So many people say that life is short. And I realize that this is generally meant to be inspirational, but how can life be considered short when there is absolutely nothing anyone can experience that is longer and more fundamental? Life encompasses utterly everything that holds physical meaning, everything that means anything! Every thought, every feeling, every joy, every sorrow, every last experience is a product of life in all of its glory in whatever duration each of us happens to “receive.” I feel like this insistence that pursuits should be sought after, and joys should be appreciated, because “life is short” are degrading the truest beauties that could be relished. If life is short then we might be more likely to hastily indulge reckless behavior, or fail to consider the most meaningful pursuits. Life is long. Life is absolutely everything that each of us will experience, and consider, and enjoy, and learn from. Life is absolutely not short.

It could be argued that one life was shorter than another. As a measure of time in its purest form, this is irrefutable. Tragedies happen to the best of us, without warning or meaning. But as a measure of quality, or of impact, it is definitely not so simple. One person’s life at 50 (or at 20) could have twice the lasting memories as another’s at any age, if such a value could somehow be quantified. But it can’t, really. In this sense it’s a matter of content, of perception and of impact. A life lived in fame is obviously favored to appear to have been more impactful, but is there any way to know? I don’t think any span of life will ever seem to be enough, no matter how long it endured, especially if people are compelled to think of it as “short.” This only stresses that the value of a life is not necessarily lessened much by a short timeframe. It is unfortunate, of course, that any life ends any sooner than it might have under ideal circumstances. But it is what it is, and I sincerely hope that the person in each such case had as fulfilling and impactful a life as possible in his/her allotted time. It’s going to seem short no matter what, if you have such an outlook, even for the longest among them.

And yet I can’t argue with the idea that someone who runs around proclaiming that life “is short” and, in turn, motivates themselves (and others) to live it more effectively, is certainly getting something valuable out of it. I just think the same value, and so much more, can be gotten out of life without this nonsense. We don’t need to convince ourselves that our time is “short.” We need to convince ourselves that our time is precious, and long, and we have all this priceless span of life to fill with as much positivity and goodness as we can manage. Do it because it is so long, because there is so much available to fill it with.

I wonder what is even meant by that generic phrase “Life is short?” Broken down to its individual words, the phrase lacks meaning. “Life” is obvious; it is the perception each of us has of our surroundings in the duration that we have them. It is life, it’s self-explanatory. We all know what life is. “Short,” however, is a comparative argument; there is no “short” without acknowledging something that is not. Certainly, in respect to the lifespan of a giant tortoise (reportedly an average of 177 years in captivity), or of a Redwood tree (reportedly 500 to 700 years) or of a star (our own rather “average” star will supposedly have “lived” for 10 billion years by its end), the average human lifespan is but a fraction—a decent fraction of the giant tortoise, but a mere nanosecond of the “cosmic day” compared to the star. But what real relevance does any of this have? We are not giant tortoises and we most certainly are not stars. Their lifetimes apply to them and reflect upon the grand scheme of things from their individual perspectives but need not imply any sort of shortcoming on our part. So what if a giant tortoise lives 177 years? Its life is trivial compared to ours. Nothing against humongous elderly turtles but, come on, their biology is so much simpler and so much more accommodating of their “long” lives. Can a giant tortoise entertain abstract thoughts and shape its environment to its will? Can it even move faster than five miles an hour? Would anyone seriously give up their human inheritance for these extra hundred years? Stars perpetually burn unimaginable amounts of fuel throughout their ridiculously long lifetimes, but they’re not even sentient. They can’t communicate with each other and share in mutual pursuits. They are stars. Any comparison is silly and fruitless. What real meaning does the comparison of years hold in any of these cases, or in any other?

Perhaps this judgment of shortness is being compared not to the lifetime of another thing, but to the lifetime each of us desires to experience. I think most people probably would like to know that they are going to live well beyond any averaged estimate of their society, or even the record breakers. But this shouldn’t make the life we are living, and whatever life is going to be in store for us, any less incredible or meaningful. It shouldn’t make us feel like it is short.

The average human lifespan is reportedly about 63 years (higher, of course, in first-world countries). As recently as 1796 the average lifespan was around 24 years (again, higher for first-world countries). Some are claiming that, as of today, as many as half of the children born will see their hundredth birthday in good health. And the children of these children may be looking at a reasonable likelihood of living to be 120 or 150! This thrills me to no end. I dearly wish that I had been born in this projected generation that is likely to live to be 120 in good health. The point is, we do have influence on the length of our lives. The evidence seems to suggest there is not some upper limit of barely more than 100 years, like some seem to believe. If life expectancy has been climbing, and continues to climb with appreciable progress, who can say it’s going to stop? Of course there are undeniable biological processes at work; bodies degrade and organs cease to function on their own, but clearly there are means to extend this downfall. We have every reason and every chance to put our unique human potential to work and extend this beautiful and mysterious thing that we call life for as long as we possibly can. Without it there is nothing, and I cannot consider that an acceptable alternative. What is nothing in the face of everything? If there are still more possible ways to advance the average lifespans of our kind, healthily and without significant consequence, then I absolutely believe that we should pursue this. I don’t believe there is some boundary inherently imposed on us by some all-encompassing force, over which we have no “right” to achieve. The boundary is ours to determine, ours to influence and improve upon by whatever means we gain understanding of it and competence to do so.

We tend to live our lives in defiance of the impending doom which is sure to eventually come. We indulge in material things, and in (sometimes foolish) “fun” pursuits, and we shrug off the idea that it’s all temporary. The people who act most recklessly (within reason) seem to be the most highly regarded by others. I mean, I’m all for having a good time, and making the most of my “prime” years, but I also feel like more meaningful pursuits are more advantageous at any age. This trait should not be shunned, but admired and strived for. The generic advice of the elderly is generic for a reason. We’re bound to realize this eventually, so why not as early as possible? We can still be somewhat reckless and have a good time while being considerate of whatever future we are imagining at each moment and efficiently factoring this.

This is all, of course, without consideration of a spiritual afterlife. I need to make that clear. Such a thing is just wildly difficult to mix into an argument (not to mention the number of people who will simply dismiss it). In fact, I respect this viewpoint, the idea of a spiritual eternity, most of all. But even so, even in the face of the promise of the most wonderful, glorious, eternal afterlife, if you believe in this, the physical, worldly life loses none of its significance. My argument does not change at all. Because an eternity of blissful spiritual afterlife is, by definition, going to be fulfilled regardless of the length of the timeframe spent roaming the Earth. What’s another ten, or fifty, or even a couple hundred years in the face of eternity? As a matter of worldly years, it doesn’t matter when you reach this eternity. You won’t even notice. But it makes all the difference here in the physical existence. You will have experiences, and you will impact others, and you will leave some sort of legacy. Another 50 years, if it were ours to be had, holds all the relevance in the world. You’ll never even know, once it’s said and done and you’ve achieved your spiritual afterlife, how long it took, how long you might have had to “suffer” (I disagree) through the physical realm. Any number of years is of no consequence in this regard, but any single year holds unimaginable promise here where the laws of physics bind us and our fellow humans need our help and our communication and companionship.

So give these things while you can. Indulge your passions. Make it count. Life is certainly not short, but it is all we have and the moments will flow by like a raging river if we aren’t careful to always make the best that our individual potential can make, and stay focused. Stay intrigued. Stay curious. And for the love of all that is good and just, be friendly and reasonable and share all that you can share with your fellow humans. What else can we do in this time that we have? Petty disagreements and judgments and ill-feelings in general are just silly. You should be ecstatic with joy any time your eyes fall upon those of another human, any fellow human being, especially when you know them personally and have any sort of memories and experiences together. To paraphrase the great Carl Sagan, you could travel a thousand light-years and never meet another. We should all be the best of friends, every last one of us. We should all be experiencing the joys and fascinations of life, and even the sorrows and pains, with one another. We should all be doing what we can to make sure the memories we have made, and perpetually continue to make, are as impactful and long-lasting as possible. We all have ultimate power over all of these things, including also our hopes and anticipations of the future. The best is yet to come.


Posted by Eli Stanley | at 12:56 AM

2 comments:

lettersfromlaunna said...

I love most of my memories and I try to keep them as such... sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't when I do, it's wonderful :)

LDswims said...

Life is short means something entirely different to me. Having lost my mom and dad both by the time I was 30, one at the age of 55 and the other at 61, "life is short" does not mean how many calendar days, weeks, months, or years you live. It means no matter how hard you try, you cannot squeeze in all that you want to do. You can be 120 and you'll still want to see things unfold. Or you can be 7 days old and you will still be in awe of all that is happening. There will always be something else we want to do, see, hear, touch, taste, etc. Life is short addresses that sentiment, not the passing of time.

Always provocative! Thank you!

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