Nostalgia is a word made up to describe a problem.
The problem is a painful longing for home. The term was first developed to describe homesickness among Swiss mercenaries in the 17th century. We currently use nostalgia in a relatively positive light for ourselves, but with some caution in others. Sharing our photobooks of great memories seems objectively wonderful, but being compelled to walk slowly through someone else’s scrapbook requires real discipline. Listening to someone’s unrestrained nostalgia can easily bring us back to the medical diagnosis that something is very wrong:
There are 2 main dangers in nostalgia: delusion and despair.
When we experience life we normally experience the complex assortments of good and bad elements. Nostalgic recollections are more curated. We automatically sort and collate memories into themes which intensify feelings of past experiences. The intensity of the feelings, negative or positive, are powerful and potentially addictive.
In the same way, we sometimes watch films for intense feelings, including the biochemical responses to those feelings, we can trigger adrenaline, dopamine, etc. from entering into memories. The problem comes when we fail to come out of the “suspension of disbelief” we use when watching stories. In the movie, I want to see Bilbo Baggins, not Martin Freeman. After the movie I want to be able to realize that Martin Freeman is not that small, his feet that big (and that Martin Freeman is not the same as Morgan Freeman, even though it is easy to misspeak).
So What Good Is Nostalgia?
Nostalgia is good, like most things, when done wisely. When looking back connects you to something meaningful, that is good. The challenge is to avoid the distortions that lead to despair or delusion by remembering the imperfections honestly. A special Christmas memory is wonderful as long as you don’t compare your current unedited experiences to it. Such sentimental nostalgia becomes a type of propaganda that undermines the beauty and meaning in the present.
What we are connecting with in our nostalgic moments are reassurances of true things. Those true things transcend the specific memory, though they can genuinely be part of those memories. The sense of blissful shalom describing the garden of Eden is part of something true: God is good, and created goodness, and made us in his image to enjoy goodness in creation with him. What is also true is that humanity is “East of Eden”. We have been cast out of our primal bliss and have been told that moving backward is not an option. Even Ana Nalick knows that.
He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. – Genesis 3:24
The “tree of life” is a nostalgic memory for Adam’s race. All people everywhere have a sense of Paradise, of the Ideal, the Bliss. We organize our feelings and thoughts culturally in philosophy, religion, and art. The half-truth is that all religions (including anti-religious philosophies) are just like various blind men describing different parts of the same elephant.
All of us try to describe the very real sense that there are beauty and meaning in life, that are knowable at a level deeper than just thoughts. We have experienced tastes, glimpses, touches of the eternal. We just can’t seem to agree on how to describe it. But Tim Keller is right when he shows the flaw in the analogy:
Several blind men were walking along and came upon an elephant that allowed them to touch and feel it. “This creature is long and flexible like a snake” said the first blind man, holding the elephant’s trunk. “Not at all—it is thick and round like a tree trunk,” said the second blind man, feeling the elephant’s leg. “No, it is large and flat,” said the third blind man, touching the elephant’s side.
Each blind man could feel only part of the elephant—none could envision the entire elephant. In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth. – Tim Keller
Our limited ability to see and know all is subject to the same two dangers of delusion and despair. We sometimes delusionally claim we know and see more than is possible. At other times we abandon the quest for understanding despairing the possibility of ever connecting with an understanding that faithfully corresponds to our impressions.
I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. – Ecclesiastes 3:10,11
What we need to remember is that Truth exists, and we experience aspects of whatever is True as we live out our existence. Those moments when experiences create harmonic resonance within us are real, but they need right interpretation. Though some would call me just another blind mind leaning on the elephant, I have become convinced that Jesus of Nazareth really is the Light of the world who is the way, the truth, and the life; that blessed ideal memory but now manifested in history.
All things were made through him. Nothing that has been made was made without him. Life was in him, and that life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness. But the darkness has not understood it. – John 1:3,4
No one has ever seen God. But God, the one and only Son, is at the Father’s side. He has shown us what God is like. – John 1:18
Look Back to Get Courage and Direction
Christmas is ideal for nostalgia. Not only is the holiday a powerful source for edited memories of our past but Christmas. It is also the time of reflecting on Advent, the coming of the Truth about Life. By looking back on what is revealed through Jesus we are brought into a much richer edit of all memories. God’s own Story tells us why we sense the beauty of a Bliss that we cannot grasp. The Bliss is there, and we have encountered it, but only in part. The promise is that the Bliss we have experienced in snatches is intended to be our future. When we look back we are reminded of where what we are seeking, and why we are on a journey in the first place.
13 All those people were still living by faith when they died. They didn’t receive the things God had promised. They only saw them and welcomed them from a long way off. They openly said that they were outsiders and strangers on earth.
14 People who say things like that show that they are looking for a country of their own.15 What if they had been thinking of the country they had left? Then they could have returned to it. 16 Instead, they longed for a better country. They wanted one in heaven.
So God is pleased when they call him their God. In fact, he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:13-16
Faith means confidence, trust, allegiance, and more. Throughout the Book of Hebrews the writer has been encouraging and exhorting people who are nostalgic of peace and permanence. He is concerned they are trying to figure out a way back into their way of life before they followed Jesus as the Bliss.
They are tempted to do that because their life has been battered with the harsh realities of a dark and bullying world. Pressured out of their homes at massive personal loss they are tired of persecution. They have had times of Bliss as believers, but they have also grown weary and drifted. Their emboldened pursuit of more Bliss has been challenged by the enticement of a life of less hassle. That is how it has always been for people who experience God in this life. It is how it is for us now.
The list in Hebrews 11:1-12, as well as an extended list later, all are examples of people who experienced mixed degrees of blessed Bliss. They encountered God, and knew transcendence and became passionate in their allegiance to him as the LORD of Life. But then the immanence of the hardships in life intruded.
The absence of Bliss in daily chores, anxieties, misunderstandings, disappointments, tragedies and more tested them all. What the writer of Hebrews is telling us is that we are not necessarily doing anything wrong when we are beset by the kind of nostalgic allure to imagine an easier life. That is the force of mortality, undeniably. What he wants us to do is to look back so that we will go forward again. He wants us to remember that the Bliss is real, and that although the road is hard, it does lead somewhere.
We came from a mysterious garden paradise where Life blossomed. We cannot go back there, but we can press onward. We are no longer looking for a garden, we are now reassured that we are moving toward a garden city.
22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life. It was as clear as crystal. It flowed from the throne of God and of the Lamb. 2 It flowed down the middle of the city’s main street.
On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing 12 crops of fruit. Its fruit was ripe every month. The leaves of the tree bring healing to the nations.
3 There will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city. God’s servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face. His name will be on their foreheads.
5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun. The Lord God will give them light. They will rule for ever and ever.
6 The angel said to me, “You can trust these words. They are true. – Revelation 22:1-6