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Hello Everyone, Welcome to the podcast “Close to the Bone.” I’m Carl Vreeland.

This is episode #25, entitled, Nostalgia and Sentimentality.

 

Life is in the now, nostalgia is not. Before I continue, let me read three definitions of nostalgia provided by Merriam-Webster:

 

  • pleasure or sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.
  • the state of being homesick.
  • a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for the return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.

 

Nostalgia is antithetical to mindfulness and being present. Yet, our natural leanings are to keep the past alive. We daydream about the good ‘ole days and desire to taste the bittersweet memories of our youth. We miss and long to be with our loved ones who are no longer with us. We reminisce about our adolescent years, back when life was exciting and full of discovery and adventure. Many of us hunger for that “age of innocence,” pining to relive our carefree childhood, yearning to experience the fun formative years of high school again, and craving to recreate our college years which were full of promise. We thirst for the time when everything was safe and rosy, long before all the worry and heartache.

 

But memories are selective. When we travel back in time, we often only remember the good experiences. We recount our past to our liking, prettying it up with bright vibrant colors, making it a pleasant place to go, as to escape the unease and ennui of our present lives. Nevertheless, in the course of driving down memory lane, we inevitably pass through neighborhoods where longing and sadness slow us down. A heaviness weighs on us. The road gets rough and bumpy. And longing, regret, hurt, and resentment turn up as travel companions.

 

Feelings of nostalgia may or may not be hard-wired. Irrespective of that, they are undoubtedly an integral part of the fabric of Western culture. Corporations have conditioned us, painting a pretty picture and reinforcing how special and important it is to cherish and collect memories. “The powers that be” persistently create ways to capitalized on our affinity for nostalgia. Our heartstrings are tugged by way of sentimental songs and movies. We are encouraged to picture frame memories on our walls and build photo albums of our family gatherings, vacations, births, graduations, weddings, and holiday events. Technologies such as smart phones with camera and video capabilities were developed to document our lives, whereas recording every special moment (and mundane moment for that matter) and posting it on-line is now commonplace. Picture-taking and video recording special events have taken priority over the actual event. Yes, documenting the moment has superseded experiencing the moment itself.

 

If there is one institution that has capitalized on nostalgia more than any other, it has been Disney. In an article entitled, Disney history: how has the corporation shaped our perception of the past?, historian Dr. John Wills writes. . .

So what, specifically, is ‘Disney history’? Disney history is primarily about nostalgia and resolution. Disney offers a sentimental and largely positive reading of the past, often high in visual detail, that promotes the idea of history as leading to happy endings and universal progress. It is utopian and optimistic. As to be expected in child-focused stories, some of the moral complexity of the past is sidelined in the search for a simpler and more comprehensible tale of ‘heroes and villains’ and the triumph of forces for good over evil.1

 

Yes, Disney primarily caters to children, whom they indoctrinate right at the start. History is sidelined to depict life as an unrealistic utopia with happy endings. In the book, Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Film, the author, M. Keith Booker writes, “The Disney company was quite well aware that one of the principal features of bourgeois ideology is an intense sentimentality that tends to focus on animals, kindness to animals thus serving as a utopian compensation for the cruelty and alienation to which humans are subjected in a capitalistic environment.”2

 

Disney created a culture of sentimental stories and fluffy, fuzzy characters which misled, misguided, and misdirected us. They conditioned generations of children into believing in fairytales. Expectedly, many adults (although not admittedly so) still live in a dream-like world hoping and wishing for that Disney-like happy ending.

 

All the same, Disney doesn’t have a monopoly on sentimentality; it is hammered into our psyches from many different sources. Hollywood movies, family-oriented T.V., romantic novels, syrupy songs, patriotic songs, and Broadway musicals are competitive contributors. Our capitalistic society rakes in billions of dollars and thrives on plucking our heart-strings.

 

The Macmillan Dictionary defines sentimentality as: the expression of feelings of sadness, sympathy, love, etc. in a way that is inappropriate or obvious. Expressing emotions in an excessive, silly or embarrassing way.

The online Oxford English Dictionary defines sentimentality as: exaggerated and self-indulgent tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia.

There is no shortage of sentimentality, and songs play a huge role in seeing it stays that way. The American songbook is filled with blatantly nostalgic songs. The song Memory3 from the Broadway show Cats is a classic example. In this well-crafted song, the singer is yearning for the past, desiring a happier time. She’s not looking toward the future, in the hopes of a better life, no, she’s wishing to return to a former life.

 

And it’s no mere coincidence that the Beatles song Yesterday,4 according to Wikipedia “. . . remains popular today and, with more than 2,200 cover versions, is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music.” Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) asserts that it was performed over seven million times in the 20th century. Other than the fact that it was beautifully written and wonderfully sung, performed, and arranged, it is one of the most nostalgic songs ever produced. The singer longs for yesterday, when life was free of troubles, and love was easy and simple.

 

In view of this, when it comes to songs, is there more going on than meets the ear? Take the song Yesterday, it may not penetrate you as deeply as someone who was in the age range of 8-20 when the record was first released. Let me explain. . . In the book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession, author Daniel J. Levitin explains, “. . . our brains are developing and forming new connections at an explosive rate throughout adolescence, but this slows down substantially after our teenage years, the formative phase when our neural circuits become structured out of our experiences. This process applies to the music we hear; new music becomes assimilated within the framework of the music we were listening to during this critical period.”5

 

In short, the songs we listened to growing up are deeply rooted into our neural circuitry and are intrinsically connected to our recollection of those adolescent years. These particular songs can stir up strong emotions and meaningful memories of the past such as our first date, our first kiss, the first time we fell in love, and our first sexual experience. They remind us of a time when our lives seemed innocent and carefree, an age when we had little responsibility and no bills to pay. If we add to this equation the fact that music stimulates the pleasure pathways of the brain, then it befits that our hard-wiring leaves us easy pickins’ to the nostalgic-producing corporate machine.

 

According to the neurosciences, music triggers the release of dopamine and other neural chemicals that make us feel good. In an article published with the Public Library of Science,6 a group of Montreal researchers showed that when the participants experienced “chills” from the music they were played, it increased the release of dopamine (the “feel good” chemical which also motivates us to seek reward and pleasure as well). By all means, supplementing our favorite songs from our formative years with the chill factor will certainly serve up a bittersweet, nostalgic soup for our tasting.

 

See, when an old familiar song comes on the radio and takes us on sentimental journey, we can smile for a few moments, remembering our hometown and childhood friends. But if we travel too long, at the end of the road we will wind-up disquieted and disoriented. Yes, even fond memories possess a wistful quality. Which is why dwelling on them can throw us off-balance and make us uneasy. This perspective is not new, the adverse effects of nostalgia are known and documented. On the Online Etymology Dictionary, nostalgia:

. . . is listed among the “endemic diseases” in the “Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine” [London, 1833, edited by three M.D.s], which defines it as “The concourse of depressing symptoms which (sometimes) arise in persons who are absent from their native country, when they are seized with a longing desire of returning to their home and friends and the scenes [of] their youth. . . . ” It was a military medical diagnosis principally, and was considered a serious medical problem by the North in the American Civil War: In the first two years of the war, there were reported 2588 cases of nostalgia, and 13 deaths from this cause.7

Nostalgia is listed as an endemic disease, not unlike how Alcoholics Anonymous lists alcoholism as a spiritual disease. I make this comparison to detail another point. I am convinced of this—if you want to get out of the habit of living in your head and reliving the past—stop drinking alcohol. There is nothing that feeds and nourishes nostalgia and sentimentality more than this depressive intoxicant.

 

The pop song Piano Man,8 written and performed by Billy Joel, epitomizes this view and drinking culture of the West. It displays the normalcy of drinking and how it nourishes nostalgia. The lyric is filled with maudlin characters imbibing and swimming in sentimentality. Joel’s images are vivid. As a fly on the wall, the listener observes a tribe of lonely drinkers planted on their barstools, longing for bygone days, hoping to escape their troubles and pain. Yes, drinking and longing seem to go hand in hand. And the song, There’s A Tear in My Beer,9 written and performed by Hank Williams is most certainly of that opinion. We witness the loneliness and tears of a man who is drinking beer after beer in an attempt to liberate himself from his heartbreak.

 

The benign portrayal of beer can be found in many sentimental songs, but Country Music corners the market on it. Probably the most popular phrase used in countless country songs is “crying into my beer.” Then, there is the whiskey. . .  The Lady A song (formerly Lady Antebellum), Need You Now10 reeks of booze and drips with sentimentality. The heartbroken singer slowly gets drunk as the evening turns to the wee hours of the night. He loses his wits and calls his former lover to tell how much he needs her now.

 

Even current artists such as Ed Sheeran are not immune to romanticizing the drink and the days of youth. His song Castle on the Hill11 depicts the singer’s strong desire to return to his past, which includes drunken nights with friends drinking straight whiskey, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and running from cops. Surely, this is far from an innocuous pop song. Yes, one might say, well, “boys will be boys.” But I am certain the families who have lost their children to drunk driving and alcohol poisoning would differ in opinion.

 

There are a plethora of songs glamorizing whiskey, beer, wine, rye, bourbon, and even Pina Coladas. But no one can dress it up and romanticize it better than the late, great Frank Sinatra. In a song aptly titled, Drinking Again,12 Sinatra swigs at the bar, thinking of when he was in love and wishing for that time again. Unquestionably, alcohol, romance, and heartbreak are closely intertwined. In the classic One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),13 we find Frank sharing his sad story with the bartender, toasting to the end of another love affair. Clearly, the bar culture is a feeding ground for sentimentality and nostalgia. And a place for the romantic to drown his or her sorrows. But let’s not overlook that it’s also a habitat for shoddy characters; the maudlin drunk, the promiscuous philanderer, the pick-up artist, the salesman, the lonely depressed divorcee, and the pool shark. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that hanging out at bars and spiritual growth are incompatible.

 

Of course, there are also poems, plays, films, and novels that fit this bill. And many of them play a role in perpetuating our penchant for alcohol, romance, heartache, and nostalgia. Nevertheless, there are other contributing factors and mechanisms to look at as well, such as the sources of power that condition us and feed our sentimental stomachs. Corporations spend immense amounts of money on advertising, selling us sentimental and nostalgic notions to keep us consuming—and “the establishment” supports this consumption. This powerful elite group backs these ideas not only for financial gains, but to distract us from the inconvenient truths. Naturally, they want us abiding to the rules of the game. Political leaders shed crocodile tears for their country and countrymen while demonizing their opponents—and patriotism keeps us marching off to war. Evangelists proclaim that tithe and money is our ticket to heaven—and religion maintains our faith and hope in a paradisiacal afterlife. A husband cries for forgiveness, professing his deep unwavering love, promising that it will never happen again—and romanticism blinds another woman from neglect and abuse. Sentimentality veils us from the true reality. The great Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote: “Rhetoric is fooling others. Sentimentality is fooling yourself.”14

 

Nostalgia and sentimentality cater to our cravings for something other than reality, diverting our attention from the now. Provided we want to connect to our Divine Nature and ergo, life, we must let go of this mental habit of living in our heads. When a memory arises, don’t dwell on it, don’t hold on to it, let it pass freely. Don’t fall prey to sentimentality. Withhold from wallowing in the past. Practice non-attachment by letting go of the memories. Now you might ask, “So I should forget about my wonderful upbringing and my caring and nurturing mother and father who are now deceased? That’s disrespectful and cold-hearted, isn’t it?” Of course we needn’t forget about our past and our loved ones who are no longer with us. What I’m suggesting is that when the memory of them comes, we let it touch us lightly and then let it go, just as we do with the thoughts that arise in our seated meditation practice. When thoughts of our deceased grandparents come to mind, instead of permitting ourselves to be swept away by them, we let them touch us for a few moments. We acknowledge them and feel the feelings and emotions that may also arise. And then we let the memory go with a soft smile, allowing the thoughts and feelings to float away. We detach with love and go to gratitude for having had such wonderful grandparents. If the memories are upsetting or disturbing and we find ourselves getting fearful, angry, or resentful, we do the same (perhaps sans the soft smile). Then we redirect our attention. In time, with practice, the memories will stick less and slide off the banks of the brain.

 

Additionally, we can practice “people, places, and things.” I found it helpful to listen to more new music and less from the old days. When my relationship ended, I took old pictures down from the kitchen wall and hung new ones. I also packed-up or tossed-out souvenirs. I explored new cafes and restaurants. I also drove a different route to work. By changing our environment and routines we are not hoping to forget the past nor deny it, we are simply making an effort to spend less time there in order to live in the present more often. Truth is, there is a lot to learn from our past, as long as we don’t cling to it. And given we don’t immerse ourselves in yesterday, we will find peace with it. All said, a touch of sentimentality and nostalgia never hurt anyone, just like a sip of champagne never did. But there is a delicate balance between a toast to the good old days and a drunken road trip down memory lane.

 

Well, that’s all I have for now, as always, thank you so much for listening. If you enjoy this podcast, a great way to support it is to leave a Review or Rate it on Apple, or Subscribe to it and Share it with others. And don’t forget to visit my website, carltvreeland.com, you’ll find my Podcast page there, a YouTube link to my channel 12 Steps to Heaven, and you’ll also find my Blog page, in which I plan to post the transcript to this episode on. Again, thank you so much for listening. Be well.

 

 

 

 

  1. Wills, John. Article. Disney history: how has the corporation shaped our perception of the past?com. May 2016
  2. Booker, Keith M. Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Film. p. 26.
  3. Webber, Andrew Lloyd. Trevor Nunn. Song. Memory. From the Broadway show Cats.
  4. Lennon, John. Paul McCartney. Song. Yesterday. Recorded by the Beatles.
  5. Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession, p. 227.
  6. Salimpoor, Valorie N. et al. (Mitchel Benovoy, Gregory Longo, Jeremy R. Cooperstock, Robert J. Zatorre). Article. The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal. 16 October 2009. Published on plos.org (Public Library of Science).
  7. Article. Published on the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com).
  8. Joel, Billy. Song. Piano Man.
  9. Williams, Hank. Song. There’s A Tear in My Beer.
  10. Kear, Joshua. Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley. Song. Need You Now. Song recorded and performed by Lady A.
  11. Sheeran, Ed. Benjamin Levin. Song. Castle on the Hill. Song recorded and performed by Ed Sheeran.
  12. Mercer, Johnny. Doris Tauber. Song. Drinking Again. Performed by Frank Sinatra.
  13. Arlen, Harold. Johnny Mercer. Song. One for My Baby (and One More for the Road). Performed by Frank Sinatra.
  14. Yeats, W.B. Quote.
I strongly encourage my readers to share their thoughts and add to the conversation. Don’t be shy, leave your comments below. 

 

 

 

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