slider top


The Feeling Of Being Weirdly Nostalgic For A Dreadful Time In Your Past

Angst, by Edvard Munch. Oil on canvas, 1894.

Often, the times we remember most penetratingly are those when we were in anguish: I disliked my high school and was unhappy there, but when I went to visit it recently, I felt a longing to be within the penumbra of those antique feelings of misery. I don’t miss being the kid who was bullied, and yet there is a pull attached to being 14 again.

I can think of no bigger trauma than coming out of the closet. But that cusp moment, when I dared to break the silence I’d held for years, that intense discomfort, and that feeling that my life was splitting into a before and an after — how I yearn for those first dawning notes of clarity. The day my mother died, which was the saddest day of my life, had an intensity nothing else has ever touched, and I have written about it and dwelled on it because I miss the sure knowledge I had that day that feelings are what rules us.

I remember the heart-in-my-mouth feeling of reporting from Afghanistan and Libya, but my anxiety sprang from a deep purpose, fear that opened the possibility of doing something useful. At the height of my first serious episode of depression, my father came with me on book tour because I could not go by myself. I remember how awful I felt, and I remember my father’s soothing coaching about how we would get through this, and in retrospect I find an unparalleled intimacy in that experience that does not adhere to other, more cheerful times with him.

The general miasma of happy days is rich, but thinking about times of sorrow is what’s really stirring. Some angstalgia is focused on the moment when the pain stopped, the revelation that everything was in a way all right. But the primary focus of angstalgia is desolation. Nietzsche said, “In pain there is as much wisdom as in pleasure,” but I’d do him one better and suggest that in pain there is more wisdom than in pleasure.

My sense of angstalgia is so rich that I sometimes long for new difficulties. This is proleptic angstalgia, the wish to experience horrible things precisely because they will in retrospect feel like impediments against the inexorable progress of time. I seldom get on a plane without thinking how amazing it would be if oxygen masks actually did drop from the overhead compartments. I seldom check my email without imagining the news of some catastrophic loss. I seldom leave dinner with a friend without remembering that that friend might die before we could meet again.

I’m not the only one who has this feeling; indeed, I encounter it frequently. I met a hospice worker who was nostalgic for the moment she lost her favorite patient. A friend described her yen for the agony of giving birth, though she cursed every contraction as it came. And I have watched great men hanker for the difficult decisions they made in an office they have now surrendered.

Freud said that every fear is also a wish, and I often wish for what I most fear. Angstalgia is dangerous for people like me who periodically take the express elevator to the bargain basement of mental health. I try to temper the yearning I have for a broken past. I don’t want to sentimentalize horror; it’s not fun while you’re going through it. But angstalgia attaches to every prior anguish because we experience and so remember times of suffering with greater intensity, animation, and desire.