The Pull of Nostalgia & Empathy

NOSTALGIA AND EMPATHYA parent’s capacity to raise a thoughtful, self-assured child depends on his/her capacity to respond empathically to that child. Much of the work that I am doing as a family therapist is designed to initiate and animate the empathic enterprise, since it is such a crucial component of healthy attachment between both generations.

One of the challenges to establishing sufficient parent-child empathy, however, is that the process requires the parent to embark on a reverberating journey back in time, and that journey is influenced and distorted by the inevitable feelings of nostalgia that arise when we consider our childhood. The etymological origin of nostalgia, in fact, is a compound of two Greek words—one for “homecoming” and one for “ache”.

Whether we recall our growing up as existing in a rich, tranquil utopia, in a lethal, brutal dystopia, or in some province in between, the reality is that, as adults, we will always miss and treasure our childhood to some extent. Roland Barthes speculates that this is because childhood exists outside of time—it’s an age not in the chronological sense but in the mythic sense.

What gently limns our childhood in roseate light is that we intuitively understand and recall that it was the time in our lives when we were able to feel without our feelings being screened, edited or tempered by thought, words, or language. It was when we were, in certain ways, most awake, most alive, most sensual, when we were most present to the world and its beauty. It was when we were naturally finding meaning and joy in every endeavor that we undertook, in every encounter that we experienced. We may not want to go back to being the child that we were, but we all, to some extent, long to return to the native land of childhood that we once inhabited.

Difficulties ensue, however, when a parent’s tendency to romanticize that Edenic time interferes with his/her capacity to connect with his/her child, to become better acquainted with and understand the rough perplexity of a son’s or daughter’s growing up. I frequently hear these sanitized commentaries from parents when their child’s struggles threaten to disrupt the tender glow of memory that they would prefer to perpetually bathe themselves within:

I don’t know why you’re so unhappy, I wish I was your age again.

These are the best years of your life, why aren’t you enjoying them?

Life is never going to be this good again—if only I could turn back the clock.

The parent’s nostalgia serves a purpose, of course — it helps to soften the grief associated with aging, with the growing contemplation of mortality, with the burgeoning awareness that our children are here for one reason — to replace us. Time is not at all on a parent’s (or any person’s) side — it passes and surpasses us, ruins us and ultimately destroys us. Nostalgia helps to cushion the blow, serving as a psychological barrier that protects us from the anguish that we know, at some level, still retains the power to wound and demolish us should we re-visit it, or should we allow it to re-visit us.

Yet all children yearn to annihilate those parental barriers so that they are better able to become the beneficiaries of the natural empathy that all parents want to embody.

As clinicians, we can’t deprive our parental patients of the necessary nostalgia that helps them to survive, that allows them to safely reside in the region of adulthood without being buffeted and upended by the unruly forces of childhood. But we do want to help them to gradually penetrate this nostalgia so that some essence of the unsolvable pain of their childhood flows outward, and allows them to bear empathic witness to whatever unsolvable pain is being borne by the child whom they are raising.

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