Looking back on the year so far, I can’t help but feel I’ve been buoying through one long week. Though the days brought with them new moments to call the ‘present’, each one of these ‘presents’ seemed to pass by unnoticed, without significant indulgence. But despite lacking any clear demarcation along the timeline, this week-like year has nonetheless yielded moments I will expect to look back on with deep nostalgia. I recently realised this is no coincidence.
I know I am not the only one who feels this way. Many relate to feeling as if their attention sits outside ‘the present’, especially among those experiencing the now all-too-cliche quarter-life crisis. But one specific form of the malaise these existentialists might have a more personal acquaintance with is what I’d like to dub pre-nostalgia’.
It is natural to look to the future with a sense of anticipation. We would be far less human if we didn’t get excited every once and a while. But there’s a regrettable point where our constant thinking about the future comes at the expense of what makes the present valuable.
Pre-nostalgia is distinct from general anxiety, though. It involves imagining a future iteration of ourselves looking back on the moment we are currently experiencing and deriving value from that imagined recollection. We appreciate the present moment not because of the value it offers as we experience it, but because of the value it’ll offer that future iteration when they recall it. We perceive that the moment is significant enough to be something we’re likely to recall fondly, and so appreciate that we’re gifting a future version of ourselves a story or experience they’ll yearningly replay. In short, we are struck by early onset nostalgia, experiencing the present on behalf of a future self.
But pre-nostalgia doesn’t just involve experiencing the present as a contour without detail. It is also a state where instead of experiencing our best days we instead believe that we are experiencing our best days. As the moments pass by, blunted, we can come to feel powerless, not only because the present evades notice, but also because we experience the present from the third-person, as a detached biographer outside our timeline, imposing backwards-facing satisfaction.
The happiness we experience here is a sort of metahappiness, where we are pleased to have acted out a scene worthy of nostalgia, rather than experiencing happiness because of the act alone.
In an institution designed to lay down the tracks that locomote us to the future, rushing to the terminal threatens to blur the views we get as we bump over the sleepers on the way.
In a capitalist society constantly stressing the importance of jobs and stable fortunes, youth are bound to worry about the future often enough to have a clouded experience of the present. But what makes pre-nostalgia so pernicious is that it leaks into the experiences we find most valuable. Where we should be experiencing something sublime or euphoric, we find that in place of being relieved from our self, we are instead further imprisoned by a distant perversion of it.
Experiencing the world in this alien way makes us feel like passive bystanders pining to become a superior future version of ourselves. Paradoxically, this brings those future versions closer—time that goes unnoticed is time that seems to move faster. But beyond a mere passive ennui, we start to worry that we’re not experiencing the moment correctly. Perhaps in some cases we inflate the experience so it reaches the importance it was pre-assigned. Perhaps in others we worry that good moments are being inflated in that very way. Whatever the case, pre-nostalgia can’t help but shake the cage of our existential insecurity, bringing the end closer to view by making us overly concerned with the amorphous future it belongs to.
But if pre-nostalgia can reveal a hyper awareness of the future, it can also reflect an obsession with the past. We all unconsciously inherit then conform to patterns embedded by our history, realising eventually that our actions are but tiles in a great mosaic of predictability. Too concerned with this past to process the present as valuable in itself, and too insecure to admit we’re letting the moment slip, we look to the past in order to excuse us from authenticity. We feel our life as it’s nostalgia, before we are temporally entitled to do so.
Pre-nostalgia is by no means the only phenomenon of its kind. In fact, just as a guitar rig runs through an effects pedal, so too does our experience of moments run through a filter of self-awareness and desire. Trapped within this feedback loop, we then fail to have the very experiences worthy of nostalgic preservation.
Despite all this, I still find myself experiencing things in my life vicariously, on behalf of a future, more perfect iteration of myself I know I will never grow into. Perhaps I will never be able to look back on my life with any sense of admiration. Perhaps I will never be able to enjoy unmediated experiences. Whatever the case, I long to be rid of longing.