There's a reason the feeling we call "nostalgia" has a name. Though complex, it's something just about anyone can relate to. Who hasn't experienced the flood of warm memories that comes after uncovering some long forgotten childhood toy?
Even if you can't be nostalgic about something tangible, there are multitudes of things we go through every day that can remind us of our youth. Sometimes it only takes the smell of woods after a rain, the taste of a relative's special recipe, or the feeling of drifting in and out of sleep on a bus to bring to mind a cherished memory from many years ago.
Nostalgia is so strong because it draws on feelings cultivated over many years, but it also makes us feel like kids again. Not surprisingly, fear works in the same way. That's why childhood trauma can be at least as powerful as good experiences. Both strongly affect the way we view the world as we grow older.
Psychologists have long dealt with the past as a means of curing pathologies in their patients. This makes perfect sense because there's something undeniably therapeutic that happens when we learn to accept our bad memories and cherish the good ones.
Just yesterday I ended up in the house with my two sisters, who were both extremely tired after the day's work. We tried to decide on something to do, but our conversation was going nowhere. It was basically like those birds in Disney's original "Jungle Book" movie: "What do you wanna do?" "I dunno, what do you wanna do?" etc. I realized it was really bad when one of them said: "I think I feel like just sitting on the couch and feeling sad."
I was trying to find something to cheer her up when I thought of the perfect thing. You see, my family has been trying to organize and get rid of all the old books in our house all summer long. I remembered having seen this compilation book called "20th Century Children's Book Treasury" just a few days before, and the immediate nostalgia that accompanied it. It was basically the perfect cure for my sisters' melancholy mood, so I went and got the book, and we sat down together.
We ended up reading at least five of the stories in the book, but the one that got me especially emotional was this excerpt from the old book "Frog and Toad are Friends" by Arnold Lobel. In the story (spoilers, by the way), Toad is sad because he never gets any mail. He tells Frog about it, and they sit on the porch feeling sad for a while. Then Frog gets this idea and goes back home to write Toad a letter. He gives it to a snail to deliver and then returns to Toad's house.
This is where it gets both silly and heartwarming at the same time. Frog keeps hinting that Toad should go out and wait for the mail, but Toad doesn't believe any will ever come. Eventually, Frog gives in, tells Toad that he wrote him a letter, and even goes as far as to say what he wrote. This is the best part of the story, and I think we all got a little misty-eyed. After that, they go sit on the porch, feeling happy, and wait two days for the mail to arrive.
My paraphrase is nowhere near as sweet as the original, but I hope you get the picture. The story is simple, but it portrays a powerful picture of friendship.
Even if I hadn't had memories of that book, it would have had much the same effect. In many ways, books for children are like bottled nostalgia. They take you back to a place of innocence and wonder.
Whether or not you read books as a child, children's literature can be some of the most therapeutic reading material. Everything is put plainly, so it is always easy to understand. Difficult issues are tackled in beautiful ways and are encouraging. Sometimes the books are just goofy, or even nonsensical, but we all need that from time to time, too.
If you're feeling down, go by yourself or take a couple of friends to the library, go to the children's section, and read up a storm. Even better, go back home and see if any of your old books are still around. Reading those books will be more than just a blast from the past. They can be just as life-changing as any other literature.