Heaven and Hell

Sorry for the radio silence: I’ve been very busy working on my new book on the psychology of the emotions.

The good news is that the book has now gone to press!

The hardback is coming out on 1 June in the UK and 30 June in the USA, and the Kindle edition should be out this week.

Please do pre-order your copy, and the book also makes an excellent gift for anyone that you care about.

Also, do get in touch if you would like to review or feature the book on your blog.

Back cover:

Today more than ever, the education doled out in classrooms is cold and cognitive. But, once outside, it is our uneducated emotions that move us, hold us back, and lead us astray. It is, at first and at last, our emotions that determine our choice of profession, partner, and politics, and our relation to money, sex, and religion. Nothing can make us feel more alive, or more human, than our emotions, or hurt us more.

Yet many people lumber through life without giving full consideration to their emotions, partly because our empirical, materialistic culture does not encourage it or even make it seem possible, and partly because it requires unusual strength to gaze into the abyss of our deepest drives, needs, and fears.

This book proposes to do just that, examining over 25 emotions ranging from lust to love and humility to humiliation, and drawing some useful and surprising conclusions along the way.

The Psychology of Ecstasy

ecstasy

Men die in despair, while spirits die in ecstasy. —Balzac

Happiness has been deemed so important as to feature as an unalienable human right in the United States Declaration of Independence. It is, however, a fuzzy concept that means different things to different people. On one level, it can be amalgamated with a range of positive or pleasant emotions such as acceptance, contentment, gratitude, gratification, pride, excitement, amusement, and joy. On another level, it can be thought of in terms of human flourishing or the good life. I have discussed happiness at some length in my book The Art of Failure, and I do not intend to revisit the topic here. Instead, I propose to concentrate on euphoria and, in particular, on ecstasy.

Euphoria derives from the Greek eu- (“good”) and pherein (“to bear”), and literally means “to bear well.” The term has come to refer to any form of intense elation or positive feeling, especially that with an abstract or expansive quality. Such intense elation is uncommon in the normal course of human experience but can be sparked by certain substances and experiences, for example, beauty, art, music, love, orgasm, exercise, and triumph. It can also stem from a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders, in particular bipolar affective disorder and cyclothymia.

The pinnacle of euphoria is ecstasy, which literally means “to be or stand outside oneself.” Ecstasy is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object, or objects, is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Einstein called this the “mystic emotion,” and spoke of it as “the finest emotion of which we are capable,” “the germ of all art and all true science,” and “the core of the true religious sentiment.”

Like it or not, man is by nature a religious animal, and most, if not all, cultures have interpreted ecstasy in terms of divine possession or revelation, or union with the divine. Many traditions seek to induce religious ecstasy or “enlightenment” by one or several methods, often meditation, intoxication, or ritual dancing. Yet, it is also possible for atheists and agnostics to experience ecstasy “by accident” and to interpret it in other terms, thereby experiencing the deepest religion without getting caught in the trivia and trappings of any one particular religion.

Ecstasy is difficult to describe, in part because its expression is culture-bound. Unless it is induced, it is more likely to supervene in a period of inactivity, particularly a non-routine period of inactivity, or in a novel, unfamiliar, or unusual setting or set of circumstances. The person enters into a trans-like state that typically lasts from minutes to hours, although subjective perception of time and space may be highly distorted. He or she feels a great sense of calm and quiescence and may become tearful and unresponsive up to the point of unconsciousness. The experience is typically described as delightful beyond expression and the first episode as life changing.

One of my friends explained it thus: “It felt like the fulfillment of my life, but, more than that, the fulfillment of all life, of life itself. It put everything into perspective and gave it all unity, purpose, and nobility. It’s completely changed me. Still today, everything that I do—and, perhaps more importantly, do not do—is grounded in that vision, grounded in that reality… It’s as if it’s opened up a channel in my mind. I feel more alert and alive, and often experience small aftershocks of the original experience. These aftershocks can be triggered by the smallest things: the song of a bird, the sun playing into a room, the fleeting expression on the face of a friend, or anything that is slightly heightened or unordinary and in some sense a reminder of the eternal and infinite.”

The friend in question also confided that he had torn up his CV (resume) after realizing that nothing that a CV could get him could be worth having. Ecstasy can lead to one or several such epiphanies. An epiphany, or “eureka moment,” can be defined as the experience of a sudden and striking realization, especially one that is both profound and against the grain (although the term is also used to refer to the manifestation of a divine or supernatural being, and, more specifically, to the revelation of the incarnation of the infant Christ to the Gentiles in the form of the Three Kings). In Sanskrit, “epiphany” is rendered as bodhodaya, which derives from bodha (“wisdom”) and udaya (“rising”), and literally means “a rising of wisdom.”

One of the cardinal features of ecstasy is the dissolution of boundaries, with the individual ego merging into all being. More than at any other time in human history, our society emphasizes the sovereign independence and supremacy of the ego, and the ultimate loneliness and responsibility of each and every individual. From a young age, we are taught to uphold and control the ego, so much so that we have lost the art of letting go. Indeed, we no longer even recognize the possibility of letting go, leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience. Today, if anyone cannot or will not remain in tight control of his or her ego, the consequences can be utterly devastating. Yet, letting go can free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, returning us to a primordial Eden. Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they are brimming with joy and wonder. Ecstasy can make us once again into a little child.

The Lost Virtue of Patience

patience

‘Patience’ (forbearing) derives from the Latin patientia, ‘patience, endurance, submission’, and, ultimately—like ‘passivity’ and ‘passion’—from patere, ‘to suffer’. It can be defined as the quality of endurance and equanimity in the face of adversity, from simple delay or provocation to grand-scale misfortune or calamity.

The Old Testament Book of Proverbs tells us that, ‘he that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city’ (16:32, KJV), and also that, ‘by long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone’ (25:15). According to Ecclesiastes, ‘better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.’ In Buddhism, patience is named as one of the ‘perfections’ (paramitas), and, as in other religious traditions, extends to not returning harm. Thus, Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians exhorts, ‘be patient toward all men. See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men’ (5:14-15).

Although patience is often spoken of as a virtue, it can also be construed as a complex of virtues such as self-control, humility, tolerance, generosity, and mercy. Patience also belies several other virtues, not least ambition, hope, faith, and love. If patience is a virtue, it is because it tends to be beneficial—and also very difficult. There are several types of patience, including patience in the face of irritation, patience in the face of boredom, patience in the face of vindication, patience in the face of misfortune, and, most difficult of all, patience in the face of suffering.

The opposite of patience is, of course, impatience, but also hastiness, impetuosity, and perhaps even cowardice, suggesting that patience may have a lot in common with courage. Impatience is the inability or disinclination to endure perceived imperfection. It amounts to a rejection of the present moment born out of an evaluation that it is marred and ought to be supplanted by a more ideal future. More than that, impatience can amount to a rejection of human finitude. Patience recognizes that life is a struggle for each and every one of us. Impatience on the other hand takes offence at things that are not intended to offend, betraying a certain disregard, even contempt, for others, and, by extension, the order of nature.

Impatience implies impotence, which in turn implies frustration, which is sterile and self-defeating in that it serves no purpose other than to make us miserable and turn others against us, rendering us even more impotent and frustrated. Indeed, ‘frustration’ derives from the Latin frustra, ‘in vain, in error’, and is related to fraus, ‘injury, harm’. More subtly, but also more perversely, impatience leads to procrastination, since to put off a difficult or boring task is also to put off the irritation and frustration to which it is bound to give rise.

Today more than ever, patience is a lost virtue. Our individualistic society values ambition and action (or at least activity) above all else, but unlike, say, glamorous courage, patience seems to involve a withdrawal and withholding of the self. Neither is technology helping. In a recent study of millions of internet users, researchers found that, within just 10 seconds, about half of users had abandoned videos that did not start playing. Moreover, users with a faster connection were quicker to click out, suggesting that the pace of technological progress is rapidly eroding our patience. Indeed, much of today’s economy is geared at making things faster and reducing waiting times to next to nothing. In my books The Art of Failure and Hide and Seek, I argue that our increasing impatience has much to do with the manic defence, the essence of which is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control.

Even in the most propitious of times, the so-called ‘egocentric predicament’ makes patience difficult to exercise. Simply put, because I have privileged access to my own thoughts and feelings, I magnify them out of all proportion. If I am impatient in the queue, it is ultimately because I am under the impression that my time is more valuable, and my purpose more worthwhile, than that of the mugs standing in front of me. Thinking that I could do a much better job of manning the till, I give dagger eyes to the cashier, failing to appreciate that she is coming at it from a different place and angle, and with different skills and abilities. An added source of impatience is with my impatience itself, as I vacillate between persisting in the queue and taking abortive action such as asking for another till to be opened, giving up on my shopping, or filing for divorce.

Patience can be looked upon as a decision-making problem: eat up all the grain today or plant it in the ground and wait for it to multiply. Unfortunately, man evolved as a hunter-gatherer, not as a farmer. Our ancestral shortsightedness, manifest in our strong tendency to discount long-term rewards, is borne out by the Stanford marshmallow experiment, a series of studies on delayed gratification led by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These studies, conducted on hundreds of mostly four- and five-year-old children, involved a simple choice: either eat this marshmallow now or within the next 15 minutes, or hold back for 15 minutes and be given another one. Having explained this choice to a child, the experimenter left the child alone with the marshmallow, only to return after the 15 minutes had elapsed. Follow-up studies carried out over 40 years found that the minority of children who had been able to hold back for a second marshmallow enjoyed significantly better life outcomes, including higher SAT scores, less substance misuse, and better social skills.

Even so, patience is more than the mere ability to await some future gain. Exercising patience  (note the verb ‘to exercise’) is just like dieting or growing a garden: of course waiting is involved, but it is not just about waiting: there also needs to be a plan in place, and that plan needs to be worked at. When it comes to others, patience does not amount to mere toleration, but to a complicit engagement in their struggle and welfare, often at the expense of our own short-term welfare. In that much, patience is a form of compassion, which, instead of alienating people, turns them into friends and allies.

Rather than enfeeble us, patience frees us from frustration and its ills, delivers us to the present moment, and affords us the time and perspective to think, do, and say the right things—which is why, in psychotherapy, both patient and therapist can require several years together. Last but not least, patience enables us to achieve the greatest things. Being patient does not mean never complaining or giving up, but doing so in a considered fashion, never pettily or pointlessly, and never from an angry place. Neither does it mean withholding, just like ageing a case of fine wine for 10 years does not mean withholding from wine during all that time (God forbid). Life is too short to wait, but it is not too short for patience.

It is much easier to be patient if one can understand that patience can and does secure much better outcomes, not just for others but also and above all for ourselves. In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester decided to replicate the marshmallow experiment. However, before doing so, they split the children into two groups, exposing a first group to unreliable experiences (broken promises) and a second group to reliable experiences (honoured promises). They found that the children exposed to honoured promises waited an average of four times longer than the children exposed to broken promises. In other words, patience is largely a matter of confidence, or trust, or faith.

References:

1. Krishnan and Sitaraman (2012). Video Stream Quality Impacts Viewer Behavior. ACM Internet Measurement Conference, Nov 2012.

2. Mischel et al. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21 (2): 204-218.

3. Kidd et al. (2013). Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition 126 (1): 109-114.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 53,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 20 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Is it a Feeling or an Emotion?

The difference between a feeling and an emotion

Today, the emotions are so neglected that most people are oblivious to the deep currents that move them, hold them back, and lose them.

If I say, “I am grateful”, I could mean one of three things: that I am currently feeling grateful for something, that I am generally grateful for that thing, or that I am a grateful kind of person. Similarly, if I say, “I am proud”, I could mean that I am currently feeling proud about something, that I am generally proud about that thing, or that I am a proud kind of person. Let us call the first instance (currently feeling proud about something) an emotional experience, the second instance (being generally proud about that thing) an emotion or sentiment, and the third instance (being a proud kind of person), a trait.

It is very common to confuse or amalgamate these three instances, especially the first and the second. But whereas an emotional experience is brief and episodic, an emotion—which may or may not result from accreted emotional experiences—can endure for many years, and, in that time, predispose to a variety of emotional experiences, as well as thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions. For instance, love can give rise not only to amorous feelings, but also to joy, grief, rage, longing, and jealousy, among others.

Similarly, it is very common to confuse emotions and feelings. An emotional experience, by virtue of being a conscious experience, is necessarily a feeling, as are physical sensations such as hunger or pain (although not all conscious experiences are also feelings, not, for example, believing or seeing, presumably because they lack a somatic or bodily dimension). By contrast, an emotion, being in some sense latent, can only ever be felt, sensu stricto, through the emotional experiences that it gives rise to, even though it might also be discovered through its associated thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions. Despite these conscious and unconscious manifestations, emotions need not themselves be conscious, and some emotions, such as hating one’s mother or being in love with one’s best friend, might only be uncovered, let alone admitted, after several years in psychotherapy.

If an emotion remains unconscious, this is often through repression or some other form of self-deception. Of course, self-deception can also take place at the level of an emotional experience if it is not acceptable or tolerable, for example, by misattributing the type or intensity of the emotional experience, or misattributing its object or cause. Thus, envy is often construed as indignation, and Schadenfreude (the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others) as sympathy. Fear of ghosts or ‘the dark’ is almost certainly fear of death, since people who have come to terms with death are hardly frightened of such things. Beyond this, it could be argued that even the purest of emotions is inherently self-deceptive in that it lends weight in our experience to one thing, or some things, over others. In that much, emotions are not objective or neutral perceptions, but subjective ‘ways of seeing’ that reflect our needs and concerns.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Wonder

 …wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy beings in wonder. —Plato

Ceiling of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Ceiling of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates presents the young Theatetus with a number of contradictions. This is the exchange that ensues.

S: I believe that you follow me, Theaetetus; for I suspect that you have thought of these questions before now.

T: Yes, Socrates, and I am amazed when I think of them; by the Gods I am! and I want to know what on earth they mean; and there are times when my head quite swims with the contemplation of them.

S: I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder. He was not a bad genealogist who said that Iris (the messenger of heaven) is the child of Thaumas (Wonder)…

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle says that it is wonder that led the first philosophers to philosophy, since a man who is puzzled thinks of himself as ignorant and philosophizes to escape ignorance and accede to knowledge.

In his commentary on the Metaphysics, St Thomas Aquinas appears to agree, adding that, ‘Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.’

If wonder truly is the impulse for philosophy and, by extension, science, religion, art, and all else that transcends everyday existence, it becomes important to ask the question, what exactly is wonder?

Wonder is a complex emotion involving elements of surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy, and is perhaps best defined as a heightened state of consciousness and feeling brought about by something very beautiful, rare, or unexpected—that is, brought about by a marvel.

‘Marvel’ derives from the Latin mirabilia (‘wonderful things’) and ultimately from the Latin mirus (‘wonderful’). ‘Admire’ shares the same root as ‘marvel’ and originally meant ‘to wonder at’, although this sense has been steadily attenuated since the 16th century—along, one might say, with wonder itself. If Aquinas speaks of philosophers and poets in the same breath, this is because both are moved by marvels, with the aim of poetry being to record and recreate marvels.

Wonder is most similar to awe. However, awe is more explicitly directed at something that is much greater or much more powerful than us; and it is more closely associated with fear, respect, reverence, or veneration than with joy. Without this element of respect, reverence, or veneration, all that remains is fear, that is, not awe but terror or horror.

Another important difference between wonder and awe is that wonder is more detached, allowing for greater and freer contemplation of its object.

Wonder has a number of other near-synonyms, including astonishment, amazement, and astoundment. In essence, to astonish means to fill with sudden and overpowering surprise or wonder, to amaze means to astonish greatly, and to astound means to amaze greatly. This overbidding ends with dumbfounding, which means—you guessed it—to astound greatly.

Wonder involves significant elements of surprise and curiosity, which both are forms of interest.

Surprise is a brief and spontaneous reaction to something unexpected, immediately followed by at least some degree of confusion and one or more emotions such as joy, fear, disappointment, or anger. Surprise is the gap between expectations and reality, and serves to our attention to a possible threat and incite us to examine and revise our expectations.

The meaning of ‘surprise’ is ‘overtaken’. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero argues that real sapience consists of preparing oneself for every eventuality so as not to be surprised by anything. He cites the example of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who, upon being told of the death of his son, said, Sciebam me genuisse mortalem: “I knew that I begot a mortal.”

Curiosity derives from the Latin cura, ‘care.’ To be curious about something is to desire knowledge of that thing. With the knowledge satisfied, the curiosity is extinguished. Wonder, in contrast, cannot be extinguished by knowledge. In Modes of Thought (1938), the philosopher AN Whitehead concurs with Plato and Aristotle that ‘philosophy begins in wonder’, and adds that, ‘at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.’

So while wonder involves significant elements of surprise and curiosity, it is both other and greater than either.

Wonder is incited by grand vistas, natural phenomena, human achievement, extraordinary facts, and so on, whether on travels, at the circus or theatre, or in a film, museum, or book, and is evidenced by a bright-eyed stare sometimes accompanied by an opening of the mouth and a suspension of the breath.

By drawing us out of ourselves, wonder does make us feel small and insignificant, but it also gives us right perspective by reconnecting us with something much greater and vaster and higher and better than our daily struggles. Wonder is the ultimate homecoming, returning us to the world that we came from and were in danger of losing.

This account of wonder, however convincing, does not seem to correspond with the more active, pregnant kind of wonder that inspired Theaetetus to philosophy. Socratic wonder is not so much wonder in the sense of awe, but, as hinted by Aristotle, wonder in the sense of puzzlement or perplexity: wonder that arises from contradictions in thought and language, and gives rise to a desire to resolve or at least understand these contradictions.

T: Yes, Socrates, and I am amazed when I think of them; by the Gods I am! and I want to know what on earth they mean; and there are times when my head quite swims with the contemplation of them.

Socrates himself only turned to philosophy after being puzzled by the Delphic Oracle, which, though he believed himself to be ignorant, pronounced him to be the wisest of all men. To discover the meaning of this contradiction, he questioned a number of so-called wise men and in each case concluded, “I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”

Wonder is a universal experience, found also in children and perhaps even in higher-order primates and other animals. Socratic wonder on the other hand is much more rarified, and, as Socrates implies, not given to everyone. Yet both kinds of wonder share a concern for what is in some sense beyond us, or beyond our grasp.

In the Advancement of Learning, Francis Bacon called wonder ‘broken knowledge’, and there is certainly a sense in which wonder breaches us (‘wonder’ may be cognate to the German Wunde or ‘wound’). This breach requires filling, whether passively or actively, not only with philosophy but also with science, religion, and art, giving rise to a third and even higher form of wonder, which is the wonder of discovery, knowledge, and creation.

Culture does not sate wonder but instead nourishes it. For instance, scientific discoveries are often more wondrous than the perplexities that they resolve, while religious buildings and rituals are designed to make us feel small while at the same elevating us. Through culture, wonder inspires yet more wonder, and the end of wonder is wisdom, which is the state of perpetual wonder.

Unfortunately, many people do not open themselves up to wonder for fear that it may move them to ponder or linger, overwhelming their resources or upsetting the fragile status quo. After all, to wonder is to wound, and thauma is only one letter off ‘trauma’.

Instead of being encouraged or cultivated, wonder is dismissed as a childish emotion that is to be grown out of. It is true that wonder is natural and abundant in children, before it is banged out of them by need and neurosis.

Whenever we do something not for its own sake but for the sake of something else, we stifle wonder. Today, most students go to university not for the sake of learning but for the sake of coming out with a competitive degree, and so pass by the wonder and wisdom that could have saved them.

According to Matthew, Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven … whosoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

The Meaning of Nostalgia

nostalgia

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. —Psalm 137 (KJV)

Nostalgia is sentimentality for the past, typically for a particular period or place with positive associations, but sometimes also for the past in general, ‘the good old days’ of earlier life.

At the end of André Brink’s novel, An Instant the Wind, the character of Adam memorably says, ‘The land which happened inside us no one can take away from us again, not even ourselves.’ Nostalgia combines the sadness of loss with the joy that the loss is not complete, nor ever can be.

‘Nostalgia’ is a portmanteau neologism coined in 1688 by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer from the Greek nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain, ache). Nóstos is, of course, the overriding theme of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus strives to get home to Penelope and Telemachus after the Trojan War.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas, another survivor of the Trojan War and the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, gazes upon a Carthaginian mural depicting battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his kin. Moved to tears, he cries out, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: ‘These are the tears of things and mortal things touch the mind’.

Johannes Hofer intended ‘nostalgia’ to refer to the homesickness of Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lowlands. The symptoms of this homesickness, also known as Schweizerheimweh or mal du Suisse and attributed by military physicians to ear and brain damage from the constant clanging of cowbells, included pining for Alpine landscapes, fainting, fever, and even, in extremis, death. In the Dictionnaire de musique (1767), Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that Swiss mercenaries were threatened with severe punishment to prevent them from singing their Swiss songs and thereby exacerbating their nostalgia. By the 19th century, nostalgia had become a topos in Romantic literature, inspiring a fashion for alpinism among the European cultural elite.

Today, nostalgia is no longer looked upon as a mental disorder, but instead as a natural, common, and even positive emotion, a means of escaping the deadening confines of time and space. Bouts of nostalgia are often prompted by thoughts about the past; feelings of loneliness, disconnectedness, or meaninglessness; particular places and objects; and smell, touch, music, and weather.

When I was 14, I kept a lock of the fur of my English sheepdog Oscar after he got run-over by a tractor and had to be put down. Like the books and toys of our childhood, or our childhood home, the lock became like a time portal, which, for many years, helped me to nostalgize about Oscar.

I say ‘help’ because nostalgia does have a surprising number of adaptive functions. Everyday life is humdrum, often even absurd, but nostalgia lends us context, perspective, and connectedness, reassuring us that our life is not as banal as it seems, that it is rooted in a narrative, and that there have been (and will again be) meaningful moments and experiences.

In that much, nostalgia serves a similar function to anticipation, which can be defined as enthusiasm and excitement for some expected or hoped-for good event. The hauntings of times gone by, and the imaginings of times to come, strengthen us in lesser times.

Nostalgia is nothing if not paradoxical. In supplying us with substance and texture, it also reminds us of their lack, moving us either to creativity or restoration. This restoration often takes the form of spending, and marketers rely on nostalgia to sell us everything from music and clothes to cars and houses.

Nostalgia also serves important social functions. Many friendships and connections endure solely or mostly out of nostalgia, so much so that inducing or sharing in a nostalgic moment can at once revive a flagging relationship.

Nostalgia is commoner in uncertain times or times of transition or change. According to one recent study, it is also commoner on cold days or in cold rooms, and actually makes us feel warmer!

On the other hand, it can be argued that nostalgia is a form of self-deception in that it invariably involves distortion and idealization of the past, not least because the bad and boring bits fade from memory more quickly than the peak experiences. The Romans had a tag for the phenomenon that psychologists have come to call ‘rosy retropection’: memoria praeteritorum bonorum, ‘the past is always well remembered’.

If overindulged, nostalgia can give rise to a utopia that has never existed nor can ever exist, and yet is pursued at all costs, sapping all life and joy and potential from the present. For many people, paradise is not so much a place that you go to as the place that you come from.

Nostalgia ought to be distinguished from homesickness and from regret.

Although homesickness is a loan translation of nostalgia, it refers more specifically to the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home.

Regret is a conscious negative emotional reaction to past actions or lack thereof. Regret differs from disappointment in that regret is of actions, disappointment of outcomes. Guilt is deep regret for actions because they fell short of our moral standards. Guilt is a prerequisite for remorse, which is more mature and turned out than guilt in that it includes an impulse for repentance and reparation.

Nostalgia can more fruitfully be compared to a number of similar or related concepts including saudademono no awarewabi-sabidukkha, and Sehnsucht.

Saudade is a Portuguese and Galician word for the love and longing for someone or something that has been lost and may never be regained. It is the desolate incompleteness or wistful dreaminess that can be felt even in the presence of its object, when that presence is threatened or incomplete (a great example is contained in the famous final scene of Cinema Paradiso). The rise of saudade is associated with the decline of Portugal and the yen for its imperial heyday, a yen so strong as to have entered the national anthem: Levantai hoje de novo o splendor de Portugal (‘Let us once again lift up the splendor of Portugal’).

The literal translation of the Japanese mono no aware is ‘the pathos of things’. Coined in the 18th century by Motoori Norinaga for his literary criticism of the Tale of Genjii, it refers to a heightened consciousness of the transience of things coupled with an acute appreciation of their ephemeral beauty and a gentle sadness or wistfulness at their passing—and, by extension, at the realization, reminder, or truth that all things must pass. Although beauty itself is eternal in its recurrence, its particular manifestations are unique and special because they cannot in themselves be preserved or recreated.

Related to mono no aware is wabi-sabi, an aesthetic of impermanence and imperfection that is rooted in Zen Buddhism. Wabi-sabi calls upon the acceptance and espousal of transience and inadequacy to foster a sense of serene melancholy and spiritual longing, and, with it, liberation from material and mundane distractions. Hagi pots with their pockmarked surfaces, cracked glaze, and signature chip embody wabi-sabi. With age, the pots take on deeper tones and become even more fragile and unique. Also embodying wabi-sabi are haiku poems that evoke transience and loneliness. Here is a pair from me.

The sunlit seabed—

A golden reticulum

Of racing ribbons.

The moonlit lagoon—

Silver scales scintillating

On quivering brine.

The Buddha is reputed to have said, “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.” That dukkha, or ‘suffering’, is inherent in all life is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The second of the Four Noble Truths is that the cause of all suffering is lust, that is, coveting or craving. The deepest form of dukkha is the sense of dissatisfaction that things, being impermanent and insubstantial, can never measure up to our standards or expectations. When we understand this truth, we stop struggling in hope and fear, we stop craving, but instead open up to the ways of the world. It is not that we no longer suffer, but that the sting has been removed because, for want of better expression, we no longer think that our suffering has to do with us.

Sehnsucht is German for ‘longing’, ‘yearning’, or ‘craving’. It is dissatisfaction with an imperfect reality paired with the conscious or unconscious yearning for an ideal that comes to seem even more real than reality itself, as in the final lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Universal.

Is it a dream?

Nay, but the lack of it the dream,

And, failing it, life’s lore and wealth a dream,

And all the world a dream.

CS Lewis called Sehnsucht ‘the inconsolable longing’ in the human heart for ‘we know not what’. In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress, he describes the feeling as ‘that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of the The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.’

Lewis redefines this feeling as ‘joy’, which he understands as ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’, and which I like to think of—in the broadest sense—as our aesthetic and creative reservoir.

The paradox of ‘joy’ arises from the self-defeating nature of human desire, which might be thought of as nothing more or less than a desire for desire, a longing for longing.

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis illustrates this from the age-old quest for beauty,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.

 

References:

Zhou X et al: Heartwarming memories: Nostalgia maintains physiological comfort. Emotion. 2012 Aug; 12(4):700

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