Nostalgia – a longing for past emotional anaesthetics
Karl Zuckerberg recently posted on my Facebook feed an image of an Alien Interceptor spacecraft from the 1970 TV series UFO. It’s a series I’d long forgotten about. The image brought memories of the diamond-shaped spinning UFOs and scary, green-tinged aliens flooding back. I was experiencing nostalgia—a longing for past emotional anaesthetics.
I noticed the post had several thousand likes. Intrigued, I clicked on the comments.
Presumably grown men proudly posted photos of their UFO models—Interceptors, SkyDiver One, the moon base. Someone lamented that a model of the Alien Interceptor cost $200 on Amazon. Nostalgia is big business.
That’s because anaesthetics are big business. Especially emotional ones.
What’s an emotional anaesthetic?
Let’s start with Wikipedia:
“An anesthetic (American English) or anaesthetic (British English) is a drug used to induce anesthesia — in other words, to result in a temporary loss of sensation or awareness. They may be divided into two broad classes: general anesthetics, which result in a reversible loss of consciousness, and local anesthetics, which cause a reversible loss of sensation for a limited region of the body without necessarily affecting consciousness.”
All very well—but there’s an assumption we’re inducing anaesthesia to cope with physical pain. Read the definition again—except, from a perspective of seeking to numb emotional pain. Numbing emotional pain is humanity’s single greatest activity, bar none.
The key word in this definition is ‘temporary’. If you have a burst appendix, your physical pain is temporary. If you live in a patriarchal society (which you do) where the entire feeling side of existence has been systematically suppressed and repressed for six millennia, you will be carrying pain from that journey, either yours or inherited through generational trauma.
“I don’t have any permanent emotional pain,” I hear you say. That says your anaesthetics are doing their job.
Permanent emotional pain requires many temporary anaesthetics.
UFO, Batman, Thunderbirds, Dr Who. They were among the go-to anaesthetics of my childhood. Films? List them. Music? Ditto. Books? You get it.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Food, alcohol, sex, money, friendship, work. Sports and other hobbies. All of these can be co-opted to provide continual stimulus and override the quiet whisper of constant pain.
Smoking, drugs, porn addiction, binge eating and drinking, self-harm—cyclical shame-based issues that anaesthetise pain when it stings too much. Tattooing. Yes, we will hurt ourselves physically rather than engage with the substrate of our deep emotional pain.
Got needy friends who need mollycoddling? They’re using you as an anaesthetic.
Shopping. Yes, we all need to buy the things we need—and even like. But look at how compulsive shopping has become. Shopping for the sake of shopping. I know someone who cleared out their dead mother’s possessions and four 37 white shirts. That’s an anaesthetic.
Social media—the mechanism that dances nostalgic ghosts before our eyes—is itself an anaesthetic. Evidence? Observe the elapsed time between someone’s phone pinging with a notification and them looking at it. The shorter the time, the higher their need for emotional anaesthetic at that moment.
Stillness and silence
We get excited by something, anything. In the buzz of excitement our pain drowns. We’ve created an urban environment of excessive light and noise to make this easier.
But if you sit still and quiet for long enough, your pain will rise to meet you.
Will you meet it, listen to it, accept it, and release it?
Or will you take the easier path, like seeing what Mr Zuckerberg has in store for you?
Nostalgia is the anaesthetic gift that keeps giving. We hook into old stories time and time again, trying to get back to those moments when emotional pain overwhelmed our adolescent selves.
Watching a few snippets of UFO, all I saw was cardboard cut-out characters, awful acting, and camera pans following women’s backsides. Of such flimsy stuff nostalgia—and anaesthetics—are built.
Photo: Batmobile @ Cayman Motor Museum by Michael H Hallett