A few weeks ago, my mom bought a new dining room set.
Given that the previous set had been around since the turn of the century, this purchase was long overdue. Still, seeing the new table in the dining room doesn’t feel quite right.
Don’t get me wrong. The new table, with its elegantly carved legs, has been beautifully constructed from a rich mahogany. The chairs are polished and masterfully upholstered. The accompanying buffet is topped off with a dark marble that gives the room an added touch of sophistication. Most importantly, of course, the new chairs are exponentially more comfortable than their predecessors.
The new table’s presence, however, is particularly bittersweet to me. Days after the new table arrived, I watched from my bedroom window as waste collectors threw the old one into the back of a garbage truck for demolition, never to be seen again. The compactor promptly crushed and battered this relic of my childhood, destroying it beyond recognition. In only 15 short minutes, I watched as the table’s life flashed before my eyes.
Amongst the shattered splinters of wood, I saw years of family dinners, impassioned renditions of “Happy Birthday,” intense game nights, heated debates, countless holidays and many other special memories too numerous to recount. Of course, these family traditions and customs will continue, and I will likely forget the old table’s absence at our Thanksgiving dinner this year. Nevertheless, its tragic and violent departure from our family home has inspired introspection.
What most struck me about the moment was its finality. In those 15 minutes, three total strangers had essentially done away with years worth of childhood memories, leaving me to confront the unfamiliarity of my revamped dining room. In the immediate aftermath, I found myself feeling some combination of nostalgia and discomfort. I was left to wonder how the future family functions to come might feel distinct from the ones of years past. The table where we will gather is newer and better, and presumably, the same might be said for the people around it. However, while I understood the need for this change, I could not avoid the flood of memories from the past, which offer a certain allure greater than those of the present.
I’m sure these emotions are similar to some with which we’ve all grappled over the past few months.
When the pandemic upended our lives in March, we had, as college students, come to establish a clear understanding of what our day-to-day should entail over the span of our four-year experiment in higher education. Maybe you were a first-year student, like myself, who had finally mastered the art of avoiding the outrageously long lines at Grin’s. Or maybe you were a junior preparing for your summer internship, hoping to secure a post-graduation return offer to ride out the rest of your college experience. Whatever the case, even though we recognized the necessity of certain regulations and limitations on our daily lives, we couldn’t avoid the temptation to reminisce on the better elements of our lives pre-COVID-19.
As months passed by with little unchanged, we struggled to confront our “new normal.” I, for one, was initially in denial, unwilling to believe that my life could assume a new tone as a result of forces beyond my control. I often reflected on the would-have-beens and could-have-beens, and I looked wistfully to the past, finding solace in the memories from my first semester in college.
Faced with an unfamiliar dining room table, I remembered the memories made at the previous one.
Over time, however, I came to realize that indulging my nostalgic tendencies only acts as an inadequate escape from the present. All in all, there is only so much satisfaction we can extract from our previously lived experiences. And while reminiscing on positive elements of the past might provide immediate gratification, it also produces an accompanying passivity, by which we fail to confront present-day challenges.
Moreover, our remembrances tend to reflect a level of perfection inconsistent with reality. When we long for the past, we encounter an inaccurate version of our memories, which paint our experiences in brighter colors than the time in which we lived them. Thus, engaging our nostalgia can inadvertently intensify our sense of dissatisfaction with the present.
To be fair, nostalgia isn’t always an indication of unhappiness and discontent. In many instances, nostalgia is the manifestation of a life well-lived.
Our lives, however, have only been partially-lived. Even in the context of the four-year college experience, us underclassmen still have more days ahead of us than we do behind.
With this in mind, we can all avoid excessive nostalgia by refocusing our attention to the present-day, by seeking new experiences that might trigger greater contentment and excitement in our lives. The monotony of online classes and Zoom meetings has likely taken a toll on us all, but I am confident that we can each regain our enthusiasm and optimism even as we stand six feet apart.
At the end of the day, scared as I may be facing this unfamiliar dining room table, I’d rather have a seat and enjoy the meal than to be left out in the cold.