Reminiscence and the 90’s – A Wallflower’s Way of Recalling the Greatest Decade in History



A narrative recall of events now past, that welcomes an indulgence into dreams, desires and days that once was. An enjoyable recollection of the tangible aesthetic of a moment captured in memory. A vivid reflection to the time elapsed in reading the world when it told a different tale.

There are a few facts that I have come to accept about myself…

Granted, calling anything a fact these days is basically akin to inviting a firing squad to pepper you with scrutiny. I gather though, that it is safe to assume that any insights you collect that pertains to the structure of your own personality can safely be labelled a fact – especially if you have spent more than a decade to put the validity of your self-knowledge to the test. I learned once, in developmental psychology, that you are considered an expert in a craft or field if you have spent roughly ten years engaged with the knowledge that underpins it. Well then, I guess at 27 one can at least confidently assume that you can consider yourself quite proficient in navigating your own idiosyncrasies.

What are these facts then? Well, they are the integral parts of the gestalt of deeming myself a wallflower. First, I am an introvert. Quite simply put, it means that I find energy from spending time alone as opposed to being charged by social engagement. Secondly, I am an HSP (a highly sensitive person). Closely related to introversion, but not to be used interchangeably, it means that I am one of roughly one fifth of individuals with a sensitive attunement to the world and that I become more stimulated by vicarious thoughts, feelings and overall experiences. Largely, this is because of a deeper level of processing. Thirdly, I am an idealist. Basically this means I am a dreamer: someone who gets hopelessly lost in the nuances of possibilities, creativity and imagination. As a fourth fact, I am a thinker. Whereas the previous facts may have alluded to this notion, it at best conveyed that I spend time by myself thinking, engaging in the hobby actively to make sense of what I experience – and that this thinking can become imaginative. But being a thinker actually implies that there is a joy found in the very thinking to be done.

So that makes me your average hybrid wallflower composed of recluse Van Gogh, nuanced Emily Dickinson, Shakespearen dreams, and Socratic pondering. They all break bread together 5 minutes before midnight keeping me awake a tad longer, and contemplate the poetic script that will paint my dreamscapes.

Nontheless, they shape my perception of the world, and leave a vivid memory in its wake.

This brings me to the fifth little fact that also boldly leaves its mark on my narrative. Sometimes, when I lay awake to wait for the supper of the greats to retire from the executive parts of my mind back to my unconscious, another uninvited (though always welcome) guest joins the gathering. It is the part of me that is undeniably what I would deem to be: a reminiscer.

And without it, the fabric of being a wallflower just would not appear to be cut from a different cloth…

On the Topic of Reminiscence

Now if you dabble in a bit of psychology, a little light reading in the field of gerontology (a study of old age and the challenges and developments that surround it) will reveal a great interest that has been evident in studying reminiscence since the ideas of a life review in old age was posited by Robert Butler back in 1963. P. T. P. Wong and L. Watt furthered this quaint investigation by seeking to establish the types of reminiscence that is seen in successful ageing.

  • Instrumental reminiscence looks at the past as a goal-directed continuity that strecthes into the present and holds answers to competent problem-solving.
  • Transmissive reminiscence (also a storytelling reminiscence) seems to harbour value in tapping into the cultural and traditional wisdoms of the past to inform the future.
  • Escapist reminiscence discredits the present to elevate the desire for the past and its exagerated value. It is also referred to as a defensive reminiscence to implicate its qualities in helping the indivual cope with present difficulties by applauding the past.
  • Obsessive reminiscence encompasses the intense rumination over the past in which one is preoccupied with thoughts of guilt and feelings of being unsatisfied.
  • Narrative reminiscence (also called informative reminiscence) presents itself as a simple recounting of the past to relate facts within the present, seeking to simply describe history instead of interpreting it.
  • Integrative reminiscence seeks the reconciliation of past events to yield a meaningful and coherent value to the present; it integrates and deeply interprets the spectrum of such events (good or bad) and ties it to an enduring personal process of finding purpose.

I believe that any proud reminiscer can count themselves lucky. The past, and history (to be more encompassing), is a grand scheme from which to make sense of, guide, and even predict present and future behaviour.

  • It holds an accountability over the problems that humanity has faced and most often created, and in so doing presents a framework of solutions (instrumental reminiscence).
  • It is a source from which to access proud traditions that allows you to take root in your cultural identity (transmissive reminiscence).
  • It offers a coping mechanism in the way it archives the pleasant memories of a time that may be in contrast to the present difficulties we face (escapist reminiscence).
  • It holds the key to tapping into the fount of our present guilt, shame or even trauma which likely shows us the need for healing – because it preoccupies us so (obsessive reminiscence).
  • It records humanity in all its detail, allowing us the ability to reconstruct key phases in our development (narrative reminiscence)
  • It helps us find meaning in a past rife with hidden wisdoms – insights that we seek to make part of our own compelling narrative (integrative reminiscence).

The Value of Reminiscence

Now, it all depends on your perspective as to the stance you would take on this matter. Many goal-directed individuals relentlessly busy themselves with the future, and surely have little use in looking back to old ways of thinking, feeling or even behaving. There is no use in applauding old achievements when new ones are to be made. Yet, these same individuals create an amalgamation of anxiety-inducing schedules and deadlines that siphon the joys they may have once held for their trade.

In comparison, those who dwell in past thoughts find great inspiration and encouragement for their present challenges, and even feel a fleeting joy at the longing they feel back to a time that may have seemed more prosperous. History is after all the custodian of all that is human. But these are the same individuals that often wallow in depressive pits because of their yearning to return to the way things were; doubting that they will ever relive those golden moments.

Whatever way you look at it, it feeds into the dichotomy of the feelings that reminiscence inspire (or that drive it in the first place). And perhaps I have lived on both ends of this dichotomy as I reflect back on a time when I felt all was well within my own soul, as it was in the world. Let me take you back into the nostalgic realm of the 90’s…

The Decade of Liberty

Yuval Noah Harari put forth a riveting statement in the first chapter of his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

By the early 1990’s, thinkers and politicians alike hailed “the End of History”, confidently asserting that all the big political and economic questions of the past had been settled, and that the refurbished liberal package of democracy, human rights, free markets and government welfare services remained the only game in town. This package seemed destined to spread around the whole world, overcome all obstacles, erase all national borders and turn humankind into one free global community.

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons from the 21st Century, Page 11

Now sure enough, in the now tumultuous economic, ecological and socio-political climates that affect our time before the turn of another decade, it does indeed seem that the nostalgic 90’s held a large collection of pipe dreams. And it may well have been seen differently depending on where you were situated. Contextually, not all countries were feeling the momentum of development all at once. But in the wake of those developments that had a global impact, things were indeed coming along. America was a global superpower that managed to end its armed conflicts either diplomatically or without any escalation. In fact, the Clinton administration seemed more focussed on negotiating resolutions rather than fuelling disputes. It was not so much that wars never took place, but they did seem to end – such as the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq or the Black Hawk Down incident which saw the military returning home from Somalia before anyone knew it even became violent. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 seemed to herald the dreams of liberation that could be held in the years to come.

Back in my homeland, South Africa’s political arena was also being cleaned up. The horrors of the Apartheid era gave its final sputtering breath, paving an open road which could be tread by new ideals of freedom and equality. The democratic era welcomed the inclusiveness of the collected strength of a rainbow nation, it celebrated the beauty of diversity, and allowed reconciliation, forgiveness and the building of a new generation that would move beyond the mistakes of the past. And heading this ideal was an icon of tolerenace, forgiveness and leadership in the immortal likes of Nelson Mandela.

Markets surged, the economy boomed, and the job market held enough opportunity to actually see rates of unemployment drop. World peace seemed to steadily ensue as years of conflict between groups of people dwindled away to allow a consideration of more peaceful alternatives. Technology was seeing an unprecedented growth that involved a steady shift in how people were living their lives and spending their free time. Household computers became mainstream by the end of the decade; the internet brought the world into a vast matrix of information and connectivity; and even fields such as film and music started revolutionizing entertainment. Then there was the achievements of science, such as with the launch of the Hubble Space telescope; till this day, it proves itself vital as an astronomical boon and research tool while in low Earth orbit. Institutional dimensions were not only building vertically toward their high-end goals of success and actualisation, but expanding horizontally to become more diverse.

An enduring message seemed to be echoed in the 90’s: a recurrent theme that was shaped by the outcomes of national and international strides toward liberty, democracy, development and creativity. Hope.

Tap into a bit of Eriksonian theory on psycho-social development, and hope is regarded as the enduring virtue in resolving the crisis of developing a basic trust over a mistrust of the world and one’s surroundings. In other words, the world could be seen as a safe and reliable space that provided consistently and met needs responsively.

Being a kid born in the midst of such soaring ideals and mindsets truly set the trajectory for the way I perceived the world. Vibrant messages of such hope valiantly prevailed over a past that people wanted to forget – a past that most had the luxury of remaining blissfully ignorant of, because the world was changing. So in effect, we didn’t need to be reminded of it just yet. History was a heretics harlem that one could now look back onto as a mere phase that finally seemed passed. And whatever the future held appeared nothing less than positive. If mindful engagement had become a coping trend in westernized contexts in recent years, then people were already doing it unawares in the 90’s. Everyone just seemed hyped and ready for the changes that were happening, and likely to happen. And most people were just enjoying it!

The testament of my 90’s childhood fell nothing short of the expectations that the decade allowed people to entertain. I remember being a fairly carefree kid in blue jeans and sneakers who expertly crafted pretend play to a legendary level. The hope infusing 90’s gave birth to the immortalised legacy of pop culture icons like the Power Rangers – a handful of unorthodox protagonists who were nothing more than a bunch of teens who accidentally stumbled upon the monumental task of safeguarding the planet. It reignited the hero genre for every bright eyed kid who just imagined morphing into a brave maverick to turn the tide against imaginary foes. Anyone could become a superhero, regardless of your playground reputation. Kids entertainment like this inspired a whole generation of millenials to be more confident than they actually probably were. Imaginary foes symbolised playground bullies. Super-selves were embodiments of the confidence that every kid had buried deep within himself. And that stick that had become a power sword during symbolic battles in the garden (at least until suppertime), became the pipedream of millenial young adults in the 21st century who kept on pursuing the fantasy that they could become anything they set their minds to…

The 90’s also saw the construction of the grandest scheme that could ever be given to the shape of any childhood with the Disney Renaissance. If the end of the 80’s signified this shift in giving a mermaid a voice, the 90’s burned a path of success in its wake in making a bookworm yearn for adventure in the great wide somewhere; allowing a street rat to discover his inner worth; reminding a king of who he was and what his destinty held; making two people from different worlds paint with the same colours of the wind; seeing a hero go the distance; or inspiring a girl to follow the duties of her heart. The Broadway- like musical stylings that remarried traditional animation created some of the greatest masterpieces in film and entertainment that would forever change the way fairytales were being told. It captivated all audiences with its expressive characters, its self-empowering songs, its heartfelt tragedies, and its relatable struggles that mirrored a spectrum of human battles that people were facing. And still it allowed the hero-complex to surge through its plot line to eventually skyrocket to a happy ending and a set of persevering life lessons in all its colour and song. It was these lessons that kids picked up on in all their 90’s driven, hope-fuelled idealism; and a happiness that people (me included) still recapture in quiet nostalgia with stay-in movie nights and the creation of restorative happy niches.

Fads blazed through childhood in a thousand different toys, collectibles, games or pastimes, making regular hobbyists out of a generation who would grow up to expand the field of work with their diverse interests. All manner of childhood stimulation was aimed at fun, innovation, marvel and imagination. Best of all: all these seemed to be progressively structured toward family involvement and engagement. There was more happiness to be created, greater bonds of love to be deepened… people were reigniting the inner flame of youth in all it’s excitable, laid-back and imaginative splendour.

And these same values fed back into a film industry that invested in glazed romances celebrating love in all it’s ridiculous, fantastical, and glorious themes.

Music echoed the applaud of this free and creative era, giving birth to genres that showed the diversity of culture, relevance, background, and artistic freedom. This was seen in anything from R&B, hip-hop, death metal and grunge. People were acclimatising and celebrating difference in unique, colourful and statement-driven ways. It left a firm and evergreen impression that would cascade right into the new millennium to witness even more individualised styles that have been shaping genre-blurring icons to overcome old labels and own their creeds.

Liberty Lost?

The ideals of the 90’s did not translate in it’s full integrity into the new millennium. Events such as 9/11 sparked the horror of terrorism and threatened the tenuous peace that had seemed likely to spread as the decade of prosperity unfurled. Failing models like capitalism had disastrous effects on different households and families as it made the economy fall into the recession. Trust seemed a feeble construct in a world that was likely to harm you – a world that now appeared unsafe as new armed conflicts erupted along with civil wars; as people were displaced from homes to become immigrants and refugees; as careers were blindsided by monetary disaster; or as hate groups flared to spark hysteria in sporadic skirmishes of violence… People became more cautious and prone to suspicion and less likely to open up to one in earnest regard. And with the advent of social media, interconnectivity and authentic bonds between people appeared to be dwindling even more. The timing could possibly not be more off with a rising ecological and climate crisis that begs for the joint cooperation of a world population more than ever. Ironically, it appears to direct its plea for help to a population that is left disheartened and disillusioned by the dawn of the 21st century.

On all accounts, the situation seems grim. The question then begs asking: does it serve our purposes to reflect back longingly to reach for the fading memory of the decade that seemed to hold so much promise? Coincidentally, I came across a compelling statement made on the account, Shower Thoughts, on Twitter. Being a platform known for its blunt dissemmination of thought-provoking content that can be anything on the spectrum of humorous to shocking, a statement was left that was worthy enough to give anyone pause.

Powerful stuff. And taking a more careful look at the inherent implication that effuses therefrom, one could deduce that human ignorance seems to indeed be the preferred default to blissful existence and contentment. The world would surely seem more peaceful if we were unawares of the more covert shifts in global affairs.

If we take the argument back to the views on reminiscence, then such longing seems escapist at its core. The favourable regard for the past over the present may well set loose a chain reaction of retrospective thoughts and intense preoccupation with the paradise decade. What was mere defensive reminiscence steadily grows into an obsessive sort with the added unsatisfaction of not having lived life when it was seemingly at it’s best. Many might share this very same incentive; those who have come to bear witness to the unfolding problems of the modern era.

The View of a Wallflower

Yet despondency cannot exist with such ease. I recall a quote. As a lover of fantasy novels, I have at times been confronted with the criticism of wasting time on the unrealistic nature of those books filled with marvel, mystery and magic. However, a lesson I have taken from life was that perspective-taking is an invaluable tool in trying to understand a contradicting world. Seeing things in a different light comes near effortlessly for the wallflower, who mulls with their observations on the daily. Naturally, I would find great affinity to works of fantasy that portray very human struggles within a completely fictional situation. In fact, every work of fantasy in its essence makes epics of those experiences of humanity that seems so mundane in its run-of-the-mill occurrence. With this change in context, comes a change of view in the way we would have seen these grappling issues otherwise. In essence, books in the fantasy genre seem to portray wisdom very imaginatively.

So, back to the quote…

In the Fellowship of the Ring, well into their journey, Frodo comments to the wizard Gandalf on the nature of their mission and the burden that rests on him as the ring bearer.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1) – J. R. R. Tolkien

Consequently, Tolkien fictionally portrayed this wisdom in a time of writing, since 1937 till roughly 1949, when the Second World War was uprooting the lives of countless people. At the same time, in a part of the world that sharply contrasted the setting of a scholar, Viktor Frankl was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp trying to survive the experiences that would inspire his writings for Man’s Seach for Meaning. Within his set of ideas, was proposed a similar notion of not having control over circumstances external to oneself, but control over one’s reactions.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

Both serve as priceless drops of wisdom; even today, as a drought of knowledgeable views appear to follow those contemporaries who are more likely to hold answer to alleviating the trepidations posed by the present problems of the world. And in the act of seeing this as wisdom, the reflection on these notions of the past could be classified as integrative reminiscence. Meaning is sought by finding the value of these past views in a presently unfolding life, essentially helping us to discover a purpose coherent with our own goals and aspirations. One might be as bold as to even say, although we do not wish to recreate the horrors of inhumane actions to inspire reflection, that we wish for more such moments of synchronised and momentary epiphany – where meaning is inherently found in the circumstances that are presented to us.

This means, that the past holds value. Instrumental reminiscence would then be evident in showing us that history has instances that ultimately mirror the present. Similar, but inverse in perspective. It can offer answers that may aid in solving the problem.

So, is there any real value in looking back on the 90’s as a great decade? Is it worth anything, that we even aim to long for it? A man named Clive Staples Lewis may hold the answer in his description of joy.

All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still “about to be”.

C. S. Lewis

Understanding what Lewis meant here requires a deeper understanding of the shape of his life – a life which led him to define it the way he does. But in essence, he defines joy as something that lies in the act of longing itself. And any thing that inspires longing typically assumes that it was first experienced at one point or another. So by that account, the 90’s – as the source of desiring (in this case) – inspires joy (understood as the act of desiring). Taking it a step further: if we look at the ideals of the 90’s, and what it emulated, then what we desire is the peace and prosperity that seemed to run through its many dimensions. What we desire, therefore, is the hope that underpinned all that the 90’s promised in its progressive nature.

Ultimately, in that act of desiring hope, we experience joy. Hope must have indeed then be something that enlivened many during this time when so much happiness was going around.

What we should come to realise, is that an enduring value is attached to the 90’s by our yearning for its more simplistic milieu. The longing for hope evidenced that people still, two decades later, believed that it was not a frail enough construct to exist. It was real. It was even tangible. More importantly, it was possible. Hope was possible.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the 90’s is not a cautionary tale of idealism. To me at least, the message of hope seems to be a far more laudable lesson coming through in its confluence of feelings that it inspires through memory.

The Wayward Wisdom

History, in fact, is suffused in evidence of human adaptability that substantially fuels hope. Wars erupt as cold tensions finally thaw into fiery conflicts; yet, it burns itself out at great cost and leaves in its wake the ashes of deep regret – a regret which makes groups reconsider the shape of its diplomacy and openness to understanding. Perspectives narrow themselves to physical borders, egocentric group think, and cultural institutions. Curiosity counters such tendencies and drives humans to assume more labile points of view that transcends a mere foreclosure to tired ways of thinking. Logic, reason and pragmatism has proven to trump the limitations of emotional reactivity, effectively discounting our psychological authenticity by working according to schemas. However, unpredictability and creativity reminds us of this humanity, and how it is these differences in our chaotic natures that have made us truly progressive. Push and pull. Ebb and flow. The world has had its ways of restoring balance. If anything, the 90’s was a convergent point of all that the past attested to, finally offering a more global moment of reflection to how things can aspire to be. The 90’s was a balancing point.

And perhaps, this was more important than any of us ever realised. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, which recognised his inspiring writings at the height of the Atomic Age, William Faulkner made powerful statements in his lecture that echo its truths even now…

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it…

…Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

… He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse.

William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 10 December 1950, Stockholm
Willaim Faulkner – Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

The verities of the heart” … Faulkner calls to action the young minds of a generation to rekindle the connection with their innermost selves, and not look to their external world as the exclusive architect to their realities – should . Therefore, fear – even though valid – should be acknowledged to the extent to which it can finally be placed aside. This leaves open a mindful space of investing in the fundamental principles of belief that truly deserve our attention. It is a fair and beautiful statement of not only caution, but of hope; and it justifies perhaps our means of looking for these answers in an age when valued knowledge was more forthcoming.

The retelling of the 90’s is a move towards narrative reminiscence by regaling the shape of the decade. But in recalling its facts, we find that the acts of this reminscence becomes transmissive as well; once we discover that there is something to be taken from this time. In this sense then, reminiscence may also be instrumental. In the light of modern difficulties that have metastasized, then psychologically at least, there is a purpose in looking to the shared feelings that permeated the collective consciousness of societies in this period. The possibility of hope can be a galvanizing force that can work alongside the immediacy that appears to be required of us in modern times. Thus, by the very act of recognising hope as the recurrent theme throughout the decade, our past reflections have given us a likely solution.

Perhaps in remembering the 90’s, it may also be true that we seek an escape. But if what we escape to is in the act of reclaiming a lost virtue melded in the idylic patterns of the past, then its purpose for the sake of coping and resillience is priceless to say the least. Perhaps we may even obsess over the time lost to us in this decade with its unique feel, shape and energy that seems so impossible to recreate. But then again, this distraction posed by the decade may in fact tell us something about what we are facing right now… perhaps our yearning is rife with the clear message that what we are posed with currently is deprived of something fundamentally crucial to our capacity of acceptance.

If the 90’s taught us anything, it is that human conflict eventually paves its way to resolution. It taught us that we are in possession of an immense capability to restructure the faults of history to broaden and build on our perspective for the future. It showed us how the quality of hope shapes our views and memories, effectively transcending right into our deeper psychological structure. More importantly, it serves as a template from which to value the sixfold nature of reminiscence, proving that our reflective remembrances of the past can ricochet right into our process of meaning-making, mindful awareness, and act in the conserving the most frail, yet redeeming, parts of our character.

Reminiscence is much like a ship that tempers its hull against the tides of time, anchoring us in the harbour of preservation and by the docks of old wisdoms. We need only board it.

Love and light fellow bloomers.

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