The Beauty and Burden of Nostalgia

by Jared C. Wilson November 25, 2019

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
-- Ecclesiastes 7:10

Thanksgiving week is upon us, and as we run full-bore into the holiday season, we find ourselves very often running into that mercurial state endemic to all holidays -- especially Thanksgiving and Christmas -- which is probably best understood as nostalgia. It's not just the porcelain baby Jesus we get out of that box in the attic, it's a dream -- a dream about what the holidays can be, what we always wish they were. Listening to Christmas music, watching those gauzy Christmas movies, conjuring up images of holiday-lit lamps down picturesque village streets, happy families gathered around festal tables in Norman Rockwellian fashion, crackling fires and country stockings, and all the rest.

We want to feel it. A sense of home, a sense of something familiar that we can't seem to grasp in our everyday lives. The holidays hold the promise of bygone, yesteryear, of quaint and extraordinary at the same time. And then the presents are unwrapped, the paper is strewn about the floor, the turkey is a carcass on a greasy platter by the overflowing kitchen sink, and we think, "Is that it?"

An Escape from the Maladies of the Moment

This is what nostalgia promises us -- an exit from the tyranny of progress, the chaos of everything we see on the news and in our neighborhood.

Don't underestimate the power of nostalgia. It tells us something important. There's a reason the toy shelves today are full of resurrected icons from the recent past -- Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, G.I. Joe. Right now, a documentary called "The Toys That Made Us" is hot stuff on Netflix. Why? Because Gen-Xers are largely in charge of production, and we have a nostalgic affection for the playthings of our past, and because we want our children to have the same experiences we think so fondly about. And what are toys, but the talismen of our imaginations, fantasies?

Nostalgia like this can be good. We live in increasingly strange times, the news cycle more rapid than it's ever been, and each wave of headlines by the minute delivering overwhelming bad news. Or confusing news. Chaos. Conflict. Class warfare. Nostalgia can be our escape. It can be warming, settling.

That's what we want from the holidays, especially. A carved out moment in time that promises something precious, something peaceful, something good and pleasant in the midst of our normally anxious lives. But those dishes aren't going to wash themselves.

A Nice Place to Visit; A Terrible Place to Live

We cannot stay there. Anyone stuck in a nostalgic space is stuck in unreality. And the truth is, much of our nostalgic dreaming is fantasizing about a fantasy, not anything actually experienced. There is a kind of nostalgia that is actually harmful.

A church stuck in the "good old days," for instance, is in great danger of death. Nostalgia is toxic to a church.

Similarly, the cold hard truth is that there is no such thing as a "golden age." For every "simpler time" many people look back in hopes of recapture, there is a large number of people who experienced it as anything but. Sometimes white folks love to look back to the 50's and 60's as the good old days, willfully oblivous to the institutional injustices against black folks for whom nostalgia isn't an option.

In this way, there are personal moments or experiences we might look back to and think upon fondly, but the time that the Lord has drawn out for us is relentlessly linear. We cannot -- we dare not -- live in the past. But it is helpful to remember it, to be cautioned by the reality as well as selectively instructed by the hopes.

Looking Back to the Future

 What is nostalgia, but a longing, really? A longing ostensibly about "the way things were," but really, embedded in it, a longing for what we hope will be.

A million years ago I read the late Roger Ebert's review of the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Demolition Man. I don't recall that Ebert much liked the movie, but I do remember one point of commendation he mentioned. Ebert said it was nice for once to see a movie's vision of the future as positive. For the last 50 years or so, every movie picturing the future has projected a dystopian vision. This is completely understandable, as the promise of the nuclear age has given way to its understood peril. But there was a time when the movies gave us a vision of the future more like "The Jetsons" than Blade Runner. People are united. Technology is our friend and servant. It's a science fiction aspiration. We even wear matching jumpsuits. Demolition Man, in its hackneyed way, pictured a utopian future.

Every now and again, we get a fiction that manages to combine nostalgia for a halcyon past with a utopian vision of the future. From a few years ago, Disney's Tomorrowland made a valiant effort. The film begins with and launches from a sweet retro depiction of vintage Disneyana -- the World's Fair origin of some of the theme park's most treasured attractions -- into a visionary dream about an alternate reality that could be humankind's future -- every tongue, tribe, and nation living in peace forever.

This retro/visionary spirit is still at work in a lot of the Disney parks' rides today. I think fondly of the Carousel of Progress, cutting edge once upon a time, in which the scene of the future looks like 1987. What was once a forward-looking marvel is now a memorial to nostalgia. The kitsch is even part of its appeal.

Of course, the Disney vision of world peace is built around human ambition, the human spirit. We know, through the Scriptures, this is a hopeless peace.

It's okay to long for the Garden. But we cannot go back. We must go forward. And we must see that our longing for the Garden is really a longing for the Garden to come. We can see our Savior in his Gospels teaching and doing great things. But we miss the point of it all if we don't see that what he inaugurated is yet to be consummated. And indeed, he is coming, and coming quickly.

So here's what to do with your holiday longings: own them, appreciate them, enjoy them. But don't be surprised when the memories being made don't quite satisfy, don't quite live up to the feeling we anticipate their bringing to us. We weren't made to dwell in the dream. The golden age is still before us. So we can give thanks for all God's done -- this Thursday, and every Thursday (and every day) -- but we hang our hope not on some recaptured memory, but on the Blessing to come.

The truth is, we ain't seen nothing yet.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
-- Psalm 126:1