For me, nostalgia is an important way to gain perspective. It allows me to reflect and remember that problems which seemed stressful or difficult in the past were surmountable. This, in turn, gives me a more optimistic view of the future. Sometimes, when I’m finding my university work particularly stressful, I think back to myself at 14 years old, freaking out about a school craft project. Things worked out then, and they’ll probably work out again now.
Like many self-conscious young adults, I rarely view the past through a rose-tinted lens or a pinhole camera. Looking back on myself at the age of 17, 15, 13…well, frequently my reaction is to cringe with embarrassment. Sometimes, though, I realize things about my past that I am proud of. Even the most mundane things—the day-to-day routine of high school, for example. It’s very easy to shrug and say, “that was in the past, things are different now.” But to ignore previous parts of our lives is wasteful—and, in the long run, unhelpful. We can learn from past mistakes, because chances are that we haven’t changed as much as we’d sometimes like to think.
Still. There’s no point in viewing all your previous life stages as some kind of matryoshka doll of self-loathing; strive to improve, definitely, but also remember that you are a work in progress and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we think of ourselves as diverse beings whose iterations are spread across time and space, then nostalgia becomes an important tool for communicating with our past selves. I am the Isabel eating a pistachio ice cream sandwich in Florence four summers ago, the Isabel who cried watching Big Hero 6 in Leeds this February, the Isabel who wanted nothing more than to be a dog trainer at age seven. Often we are so focused on getting through today that we forget the valuable lessons of our past—people and places and experiences that have shaped who we are now, distant as they may seem.
This autumn, I got back in touch with an old friend. We used to write one another letters festooned with small drawings, snippets of work, songs we liked—before I went to university, I dug out one of those letters, and was overcome with waves of nostalgia. I wrote out a messy, rambling letter and posted it off, hoping that the address was still right. At the end of my first week, I found a beautiful, fat handwritten letter waiting for me at my college. I’d been feeling happy, of course—but also drained and more than slightly anxious about the term to come. Reading the words of my friend, my mood lifted. It helped to remind me of the world outside my mile-a-minute lectures and dreaming spires; that university might be a fresh start, but that there was also a safety net waiting underneath me if everything went horribly wrong.
So open up your matryoshka doll of the past. Take time to turn over every individual layer of who you are. Critique and admire it from every angle. Sometimes, a bit of nostalgia can be the best way to move forward into the future. Remember, you’re currently building the doll’s next layer. Make it a beautiful one.