Over a year ago, we were faced with an enormous uncertainty — in our lives and our future. At that time, we returned home and stayed there. To cope with our fears, we turn to remembering a time when everything was simple and comfortable: we turn to nostalgia. When we felt like the rug was being pulled from under our feet, we reminisced on our daily lives during the “The Before Times,” aka before the pandemic. Early morning walks, dinners with friends and subway rides — what were once casual routines, became moments we yearn for while we stayed inside.
For me, it seemed like the words “remember when…” were uttered in most of my daily conversations in the beginning of the pandemic. Nostalgia for a point in time can also be expressed through media consumption, which explains the spike in throwback music and early 2000’s television shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender. The comforting embrace of old shows, games, and music helped us escape reality. For many of us, nostalgia became an immediate savior when next to nothing was able to rescue us from unwanted fear and anxiety.
Still looking back
Yet nothing really prepared us to believe that a year later, we are still in the same situation as we were back then. A year into the pandemic, plenty of things have changed, but some stayed the same. Among many things, we still found ourselves entranced in nostalgia. Only this time, the time we are longing for was not so distant. Turns out, now exists a certain form of nostalgia for the early days of the pandemic.
While most of the time it’s less of wanting to go back, and more of reminiscing about the time when the internet was all over Tiger King and bread-baking, this experience shows how complicated nostalgia really is. My understanding is that there is virtually no bounded time frame that warrants our nostalgia; it’s fundamentally a free-for-all of experiences, objects, and places. You could be nostalgic for your high school days or your hometown, but you could also long for a time when you weren’t even born yet.
The question becomes, can nostalgia really cushion us from harsh reality, and why is that so? Scientifically speaking, nostalgia does serve psychological benefits, such as countering the effects of loneliness, and even enhancing well-being. On top of that, other explanations also argue that looking to the past is a way to cope with the future. The past year has taught us that barely anything is stable or predictable. So instead of looking forward for too long, we found rest in looking back.
I’ve found that one of the things that a lot of us also “miss” while looking back at 2020, is the novelty of quarantine. Above all else, we were determined to have a productive quarantine, spending time on hobbies and learning new things, confident that we will return to each other soon.
i miss that early part of quarantine where i was like “wow i have so much time for self-improvement” now i just sit in front of the same screens for 14 hours a day
— 「desp」 (@bigracks) August 6, 2020
Now, it feels like quarantine is long overdue, and most things just become monotonous. We’ve sort of “grown” to accept the reality, and taken caution at being too optimistic about the future. So now, our thoughts and predictions of post-pandemic life have become too difficult and complex to imagine. While some of us are eager, others might be hesitant or anxious to go back to what was considered normal. That’s why we miss that early pandemic feeling. Everything was new and scary, yes, but in the end, what some of us remember were the good things it brought.
A cautionary note
Despite all that, the pandemic’s nostalgia phenomenon does come with a harsh truth. While it serves to provide an emotional cushion for many of our fears, it’s also important to note that the access to it’s experience is somewhat of a privilege. The pandemic has shifted all of our lives, but some more significantly than others.
In a wider sense, the pandemic has impacted global inequality, marking a bigger gap between classes: Minorities face discrimination, millions are at risk of being pushed to extreme poverty, and vulnerable countries struggle to protect their economies and provide healthcare to their public. Not only that, individually, some of us had faced personal experiences of loss and grief, like the death of a loved one or suffering from the virus themselves.
Novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison wrote in The New York Times that experiencing nostalgia for a time before the pandemic (or, if I may add, even for the beginning of the pandemic) is sort of “a barometer of how well [those times] were serving you.” In other words, looking back at a certain point in time can only provide solace if you are privileged enough to life a comfortable life during that time.
While this enables us to remember many of the positive memories during quarantine, this same reasoning is also why I believe we should avoid being too quick to dismiss all that we’ve lost during this time. We are all affected by the pandemic, but bear in mind that our experiences with it are not the same.
Photo: Vera Davidova