Remember New Year’s Eve, when we thought 2020 would be our year? Similar discussions and memes lit up social media when the world stopped in the following months. Our yearning for the past now pervades the most mundane corners of life, from making a routine stop at the coffee shop, to checking sports scores before heading to bed, to seeing shelves piled high with toilet paper at the grocery store. We even miss the daily annoyances: jostling to get onto the subway at rush hour, sitting in traffic, or the loud music from the party next door.

We also cannot help but notice the devastation of our new normal: individuals who live alone, enduring long stretches without human touch, or people losing loved ones without being able to hold a proper funeral. Without the warmth of direct connection, we feel unable to enter into moments of triumph or struggle in the lives of those close to us. Perhaps that’s what we’re truly nostalgic for—the ability to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn in a fully present, embodied way.

From the warm hues of our Instagram filters, to throwback fashions in storefront displays, to the political slogans that capture the collective imagination (“Make America Great Again”), nostalgic yearning runs the gamut of human experience. In its run-of-the-mill forms, it can provide a pleasant kind of closure—think of the picture slideshow at a graduation or a wedding. But that same yearning can dredge up unresolved loss in ways that tempt us to recreate a sanitized, distorted version of the past. Wistful longing for a simpler time comes easily during this dysfunctional present. But left unchecked, that nostalgia can lead us alarmingly astray.

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