By Bill Adams, Christian Care Ministry Chaplain
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
You’ve heard these words. You’ve probably uttered some version of them:
“It doesn’t feel like Christmas this year.”
“I don’t know… this Thanksgiving just isn’t the same.”
“I think the holidays are going downhill… sure not what they used to be.”
Was the past really that much better than the present? We seem to think so. We long for The Way We Were. I can hear Barbara singing it now.
Why is that, do you suppose? Why is it that the great marketing success of Star Wars is that the films take us back to something (like the Wild West), when they are set somewhere in our future and in a galaxy far, far away?
In such longings for the past, here is a key ingredient that we even have a technical term for:
Ah, nostalgia. Just hearing that word, you drift wistfully to days gone by, to the innocence and adventure of youth, to the scents and sounds of the perfect Thanksgiving or that Christmas gathering that can never be recreated.
That’s the way of it. Nostalgia always starts out desirable with hopes of great fulfillment, but always ends up a source of pain with the reality of unfulfilled expectations.
I think we can all relate. These feelings seem common to every conscious being that still has a memory (that’s most of us). We’d never trade this vital equipment, yet it is the vehicle that transports us to those far away, inner disappointments.
I love word origins; they take me back…
The word origin of nostalgia is itself revealing. In the 17th century, a Swiss medical student invented the term by combining the Greek nóstos (a homecoming) with álgos (an ache). What did he get? Homesickness! This malady was once a diagnosable medical condition considered a mental disorder.
Times change and word meanings adapt to changing cultures so that, today, nostalgia is widely embraced as a positive emotion and means of escape from the constrictors of time and space. That’s fine, and I’m sure we can all entertain a little mental flight to better days, but it seems that at the end of the journey we always end up a bit… well, sick. Homesick, that is.
C.S. Lewis helps us here. He considers nostalgia, “the special emotion of longing; it is always bittersweet.”
David Gibson in his Living Life Backwards elucidates Lewis: “When we feel nostalgia, we experience a feeling of something lost, and yet at the same time it is a beautiful perception of what has been lost, and so we long for it.”
In our childhood innocence we can relive a memory, feeling sure we can return to that place of happiness. But when we mature, Gibson continues, “You realize that nostalgia plays a kind of trick on you. It intensifies your emotions… you realize that if you could go back… it might be nice, it might be lovely, but it would also be ordinary in some ways, and simply going back to it would not generate that intensity of feeling” (p. 103).
Is it possible you still fixate on our birthday? Oh, I know you’re all grown up and try to pretend your birthday isn’t really a thing, but inside you know you want someone to make some kind of a thing about you. I have a theory as to why: Our families made such a big deal of us on our birthdays (balloons, cake, candles, ice cream, singing, too many presents) that we can’t help but want that kind of adoration still—forever.
Here’s the rub. What you think was so wonderful in your past was never really so wonderful as you remember it, and what you imagine it was cannot be attained anyway. The hope of reaching into the past, and maybe even finding it, only disappoints.
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity… What has been is what will be…
and there is nothing new under the sun.
I need someone smarter than me to bring this home. Lewis does that so well. Addressing these fondest yet most unfulfilling of memories, Lewis explains: “God is giving you in that moment one of the most profound glimpses of the intensity of perfection and beauty that you have actually yet to see. What is in fact pulling on your heartstrings is the future: it’s heaven; it’s your sense of home and belonging that has just cracked the surface of your life, for just a moment, and then is gone.”
Of course, that’s it! “What’s past is prologue,” Antonio declares in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Nostalgia, the desire for the way we were, the notion that things were better back when, our hope placed searchingly in the past… it’s all a mere reflection of what is actually found, in eternal reality, in our future.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart…
Gibson completes the thought for us this way: “God has placed eternity in our hearts. We’re built for home, for a place we cannot yet see, and so when we get a flashing moment of nostalgia, it’s like pinpricks of that eternal home breaking through into our present life” (p.103).
Ah, Nostalgia? No, not best.
Ah, Home. That’s better.
Home. That’s what we’re missing and always searching for. We are indeed a nostalgic people, homesick every one, but the cure for this illness is found not “back there somewhere.” Fulfillment lies only ahead in the Father’s magnificent house of eternal dwellings.
Jesus has gone there and is ready to welcome home all who humble themselves and receive His gracious invitation through His broken body, shed blood, and glorious resurrection.
What you and I long for is not found in the past, but in eternity. It’s called home.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning…