Do you ever find yourself caught in a repetitive mental loop of nostalgia? It is not uncommon, with more time on our hands, to relive our careers or past challenges from our personal lives. Some memories are quite horrifying, but the sum of these experiences is what has delivered us to this unexpectedly extraordinary moment.
Crossing over to retirement is the ceremonial exit from the tasks of youth: striving and constantly reinventing the self. Appearances and being rooted in the material world are primary in this earlier time. Making the transition to a wiser, more mature stage in life includes a different agenda: developing a more steadfast self, reevaluating the meaning of one’s life, and turning inward, rather than focusing outward.
The idea of looking backwards is not solely reserved for the retired. Such pursuits are common throughout the life cycle at milestone birthdays, change of seasons, moves to a new home, or changes in employment.
There is often an emotional connection to the past when things start changing. There is the undeniable desire to hold on to the familiar when the ground starts shifting. We need a coping mechanism. The transition to retirement, however, throws a spotlight on this process, and might take up a lot of band-with during waking hours and while dreaming.
Carl Jung, the Swiss father of analytical psychology, mined this area in his “old age to do list”: The Seven Tasks of Old Age. They include facing the reality of living and dying, conducting a life review, defining life realistically, letting go of ego, finding a new rooting in the self, determining the meaning of one’s life, and death and spiritual rebirth.
Wouldn’t you agree that this is quite an ambitious, if not impossible, list for most? Items cannot be checked off this list without some serious contemplation of the past. This will require significant time and effort.
There are two paths to these overwhelming and profound tasks: nostalgia and reflection. Keep in mind that the tasks unfold naturally, but not the process we choose. This is not a Robert Frost Road Not Taken moment. There will be excursions down both roads for a long time, until one path is chosen. The outcome of this choice can have a significant effect on the quality of the later years.
It has been my experience that retirees who are not accustomed to self-reflection operate in the nostalgia mode. This can be ok when life is spent with friends and family who shared the same decades. It is not an effective communication style when paths cross with younger people. An emphasis on nostalgia can keep one stuck in a time that will never return.
Surprisingly, most of us do not really have many negative connotations for the word “nostalgia.” It is commonly viewed as a wistful longing for the past, a time with positive personal connections. How could looking back on the best times of our lives harm us? After all, these were times of comfort with pleasant memories, and they can be summoned up at a moment’s notice.
However, the Greeks knew nostalgia was a minefield. The very word comes from “nostos,” meaning return (ok so far so good) and “algos” (suffering). There it is. Although it is tempting to affirm our best selves, and to use these memories to provide continuity in our lives, and comfort during the stress of retirement, nostalgia is not the path that will move us forward. We still have a good number of years to live, if we are lucky, and need a new perspective, not a rehash of the familiar.
By clinging to one’s identity as a mother of young children, romantic events, music, and clothing of another era, a professional identity, and all other iterations of the “past you,” the mind is populated with things that have already transpired. These things take away from the present moment, where anything is possible. The idea is to hold on to memories that have the power of propulsion and to let go of things that encourage stasis.
Looking backwards as a default setting is also a highway to unresolved issues, unfortunate events, painful life lessons, and those deep hurts that still lurk. That is where the concept of “reflection” comes in. Retirement is a time to process these fiends to make room for the unique opportunities that lie ahead. This has been termed “reflective nostalgia.”
Being locked in the nostalgia of only the positives of one’s life is a growth-stunting arrangement. Think of a plant with pot-bound roots. It’s time for replanting into a different container. This will be very difficult if one cannot let go of expectations of how things should be or the need to be right. There will be the need to let go of an old identity to begin building a new one, and all at an advanced age!
Are there any strategies for this essential work? The field of mindfulness, once again, offers help. Try to create physical distance from thoughts of the past. Use a mental stop sign when the mind wanders into the past too often. Practice self-care. Forgive and stay present.
A workshop leader for seniors in nursing homes also has some excellent suggestions: Consider passing your life story down to the next generation. At the very least, contemplate your most important accomplishments, the time you felt the most alive, and your hopes for the future. Be sure to include yourself in those wishes!
Are most of your relationships in life based on nostalgia for the past or shared prior experiences? Have you been able to establish new connections with people or activities in this new stage of life?