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Remaining Present Amidst Instant Nostalgia

Date January 15, 2012
Remaining Present Amidst Instant Nostalgia

Last weekend, I turned on the TV to find Kenan Thompson impersonating Charles Barkley on Saturday Night Live. Eh.

Flipping through channels, I soon settled on my perfect alternative: Nickelodeon's The 90s Are All That programming, which resurrects some of the decade's best shows. I spent the night watching 22-year-old Thompson as a rambunctious grocery-store clerk on Kenan & Kel.

The throwbacks kept coming: at a club, the DJ mashed 'N Sync's "Tearin' Up My Heart" with the Spice Girls' "Wannabe," and the place went bonkers. I recently ran into R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps saga; I now consider his autograph my most prized possession. I just booked tickets to Beauty and the Beast in 3D.

If my life is any indication, my generation's fixation on the (recent) past is ever-present. Despite our youth -- most Millennials are somewhere between 17 and 29 -- we take our nostalgia as we take our information and gratification: instant. (Same with our coffee, if you count the local barista's snappy service.)

Beyond its unprecedented immediacy, our nostalgia is also ubiquitous. From TV to movies to music to fashion to social media, we have unlimited sources fulfilling our hind-sighted hearts. Even in the café from which I write this article, the hostess's sweatshirt features the Power Rangers.

Considering the difficulties we face daily, no one seems surprised by the Millennial tendency to relive a bygone era -- even if it isn't really gone.

While President Obama's campaign mobilized and empowered our generation four years ago, we're now faced with the sobering reality that his idealistic promises haven't come to fruition. As we navigate early adulthood amidst economic turmoil, political unrest, and the cancellation of Adele's nationwide tour, we seek refuge in a simpler, safer past. We used to watch Boy Meets World; now, these boys (and girls) actually meet the world. When a real-life Cory can't find a Topanga down the block or a Mr. Feeny next door, he settles for them on the screen.

Today, our lives are filled with uncertainty: When will I find a job? Who will be our next president? Where are my keys? As John Oliver points out in this brilliant Daily Showsegment, things were easier as six-year-olds. Compared to our current conundrums, the questions of our childhood -- Who let the dogs out? Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? Got Milk? -- seem far less daunting.

In many ways, this escapism can be beneficial, even therapeutic. It satisfies an intimate part of ourselves and sustains our inner-child. There's no more recess, but at least there's Recess.

But, maybe our instant nostalgia isn't as benign as it appears. Maybe it's a temporary and ineffective copout from the adult reality we're afraid to face. Maybe it supports notions of Millennials as the validation-thirsty "Participation Trophy Generation," the coddled "Babied Boom."

"Distraction is the only thing that consoles us from our miseries," French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, "and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries." If that's the case, we are really, really miserable literally all the time. How many other tabs and texts have you checked while reading this article? This sentence?

As a constant and unremitting barrage of stimuli bombard our senses and overwhelm our ever-diminishing attention spans, our minds are often a million places in a single moment. With our energy and focus spread so thin in the now, how can we afford to invest so much of ourselves in the past? If our greatest misery is distraction, maybe the key to our happiness is remaining present.

Our nostalgic appetite also illuminates a grass-is-always-greener paradox. When you bought your first Beanie Baby or ate Lunchables on a daily basis, you were probably in middle school wishing -- if nothing else -- that you weren't. Back then, you wanted to escape to now -- or at least high school. Good news! You're there -- and beyond! No longer are you burdened by acne or braces or bullies. And even if your complexion isn't perfect, you could stomp most any sophomore.

As kids, we wanted to be older, cooler, bearded. Now that shaving serves as the bane of our collective existence, the nostalgic parts of us just want to be young again. Good thing we still are. Good thing we have the opportunity to live lives in the present that will create memories worth reliving later -- if, for no other reason, so your future older self is justified is realizing just how lame she's gotten. The more we look back, the older we feel. The longer we look back, the older we actually become. Here's a better idea: let's look forward or -- better still -- around. Someday, we'll recall now as the "good 'ol days." Let's make them good -- they'll be 'ol soon enough.

It's time to embrace the entirety of the present and -- with one part masochism, two parts resilience -- the challenges that often accompany it. While the present rapidly becomes the future, the past isn't going anywhere: 22-year-old Kenan Thompson will always be here; 22-year-old you, won't.

 

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