The therapeutic value of nostalgia

I’ve spent the better part of this autumn surrounded by packing crates and dusty items from the backs of long forgotten cupboards. This has evoked reflections on the human need to hoard, imbuing objects with meaning and power. And while I sort through I also connect with the mixed blessings we pass on to the next generation when we fail to deal with our need to hang on to every shred of evidence that we once existed.


My father died just after we moved into the home that I am now clearing out. Mum having already made her way heavenward, we now brought into our home elements of my parental home. My brother and I picked out the pieces that were meaningful to us individually, quite a modest selection, and then selected among items we knew to be meaningful to either mum or dad, unable yet to throw or give those objects away. The rest ended up being grouped into categories of giving away, or dumping. In parallel, son of ours is packing up his own life into boxes and picks out from ‘the parental loot’, the stuff that will form a connection with the childhood home he now no longer has.

It is the ‘items that were meaningful to them’, languishing in cupboards for seventeen years, that are giving me pause for thought. Some objects are easily thrown or given away, yet others have this weird additional charge…. A projection of our own or others’ hopes and dreams.

Certainly after a bereavement, or a the loss of a home or a relationship, we may temporarily take on the responsibility of loving an object on behalf of another, recognising in its abandonment the emotional loss we ourselves feel. Therapists use the metaphor of taking on your parents’ stuff after their deaths as a metaphor for the psychological ‘inheritance’ we all take on. Just as we select among the items of our inheritance, we ought to be allowed to select which of our family’s behaviours, codes, patterns or messages we want to ‘inherit’. I’m finding the two may well go hand in hand. I took over the responsibility for the little Georgian desk that my mother loved. Not because I liked it. But because I loved her, and she loved it. Now, twenty-one years on from her death, I still love her, but I really, really don’t love this desk, nor, I came to realise some of the ideas about life that I inherited from her. The abstract inheritance took me years to decode and release. Bringing the little desk to the auction house merely feels like the full stop after a long chapter. So here’s a thought. Maybe stuff helps us to carry the charge of unfinished business. Once the business is finished, the charge goes, and the object returns to being the collection of atoms that it is.

Another reason we hold on to stuff is that reminds us of previous versions of ourselves. ‘Nostalgia’, I read the other day, ‘is the process of remembering the past without all its hang ups’. In the interest of keeping myself healthy, I often spend half an hour every morning dancing to a self-made playlist of 1980’s hits, my 15-25 year old decade. In those ten years I finished high school, left home, studied, then moved abroad, met my future husband, and married him. Twenty-five years later I connect with the energy of that younger self as I dance in the privacy of my own living room, singing along at the top of my voice, gesturing wildly with my hands. I connect with infinite possibility, hope, joy, as well as, of course, the insecurity and the fear that belong to that age. But just like my mother’s desk, I have dealt with we negative charges of those challenging years, and now love what was to love about that time, and there was a lot!! This feeling is confirmed by Ellen Langer, Harvard University Professor of Psychology, who has conducted many experiments exploring the life enhancing properties of nostalgia. One BBC programme let six British septuagenarians loose in a kind a 1960’s styled big brother house. Soon they were not just identifying with their younger selves but also behaving in a more youthful manner.

The challenge is to let go of what no longer serves, either yourself or the people on whose behalf you continued to love an object. To protect the next generation from having to sift through every single school report and essay that their mum or dad ever wrote, yet to keep enough to allow yourself, as well as them, a peek into the emerging person that you once were and are. Sorting through the past, dealing with what’s unfished, letting go, holding on, and really experiencing that life is an ever-changing journey. A journey we can scarcely control, but one that nevertheless, we are here to enjoy and learn from.

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