Similar to the ethics of regret, what occurs in nostalgia appears, initially, to be no different. A human being contemplates a particular thought (or a set of thoughts)—which occurred in the past—and enters a sentimental state of longing for it. The human being may spend minutes or hours thinking about the particular thought. At some point, the philosopher in us asks the question: what’s the point of reminiscing about the past?
For some of us, thinking about the past serves as an escape mechanism. You are presently in a not-so-good state, and so you attempt to escape the present by reminiscing about the (better) past. You leave your depression behind, so to speak.
But then there are some of us—myself included?—who do not feel that way about nostalgia. I walk away, often times it seems, more depressed. “God,” I think to myself, “If only I were able to go back in time. Scoop up the past like a heap of ice-cream and savor it. Just one more time.” But you realize that such an event is highly unlikely. No amount of contemplation brings you a millimeter closer to the past. You dwell in bittersweet waters. You contemplate the past—wade in deep nostalgia—to be fully cognizant of the fact that the past is past.
Despite the depressing notion that nostalgia serves no real function (that is, it does not really take you back to the past), nostalgia does serve some function: it makes us aware of who we are, who we’d like to be, and where we would like to go. In reminiscing about a friend, for example, you realize that that particular friend is whom you miss dearly. Such nostalgia stimulates activity, ethical activity. You pick up the phone and call the friend. You write a letter, hoping to hear back. You spend some time looking for the particular friend. Everything you do in the present is intimately tied to the past. In a state of nostalgia, the past is absolutely determining the present (and, possibly, the future). Nostalgia causes one to rethink the point of one’s life. Nostalgia is a state in which an existentialist perpetually finds oneself. The existential thinker is always concerned with his own being. The existentialist is always concerned with the meaning of existence. And nostalgia fosters meaning. It helps us reevaluate where we want our lives to go. It allows us to recalibrate our actions. Nostalgia gives us a second chance at life. It speaks directly to us—for the past is where we have all come from. Nostalgia gives us the experience of the past in order to better our future. Blessed are those who wade in nostalgia, for they shall inherit a better future.