The Danger of Nostalgia

Things I learned while cleaning out two boxes of memorabilia (aka personally significant junk) from my parent’s house:

  • Paper-doll ball gowns with a badly-colored American flag as the skirt emphasize the hips in a really unflattering way (or maybe that was my lack of fine motor skills involving scissors).
  • Mnemonic devices like “Every Violinist in Slovakia Easily Eats Cooked, Tough Zebra” are apparently really helpful when memorizing lists for tests.
  • Only the first ten pages of a journal/notebook really need to be filled up before moving on to the next one. That way, you can be as inefficient as possible.
In jr. high, I apparently made threatening notes to go along with fictional stories I was writing.

In jr. high, I apparently made threatening notes to go along with fictional stories I was writing.

Besides these profound revelations, as I made my way through the boxes, I kept thinking about this question: Is nostalgia a good or bad thing? I’m going to make a case for each.

Nostalgia is good.

I have to say, it was really fun to dig through those boxes. (“Hey, it’s that coded journal I’ve never been able to crack.” “Oh look, this is the music box I rigged with fishing wire to go off in an empty room when we played hide-and-seek in the church at midnight!”) There were pictures of people I am so thankful to have known, letters that made me tear up a little, and countless signs of a relatively happy and carefree childhood and teenage-hood (I say relatively because, you know, jr. high still happened). It may seem simplistic, but I believe things that bring joy are good gifts to be…well, enjoyed.

It was also a testimony to what God has done in my life. In those boxes, I saw little Amy, around age twelve, start to wrestle with some really hard things. I saw her learn to use words to communicate truth, struggle with doubts, and be honest with the Jesus she knew more than felt at times. Now, in a way I couldn’t then, I can see answers to the prayers both stated outright and sitting invisible in the margins. I can see what God did. And that’s beautiful.

We need reminders, sometimes. In the Old Testament, God commanded the people to put up actual stones to look back. Those stones—and the psalms of history and the many festivals where the people would symbolize God’s deliverance through rituals—were basically forced nostalgia. God wanted them to remember very specific things for a specific purpose.

We love God just for who he is, sure, but sometimes the reality of that is hard to feel. The omnis and attributes can’t always redirect our soul in a practical way. Which is why the Bible also has countless examples of people praising God for what he’s done. It’s not a lesser form of worship. And I think, for a Christian, nostalgia can serve that purpose.

In fifth grade, I wrote and illustrated a story about fairy tale characters...in a retirement home.

In fifth grade, I wrote and illustrated a story about fairy tale characters…in a retirement home.

Nostalgia is bad.

I found one notebook in the box from a ministry class I took my senior year of college. One of the assignments was to write our own Screwtape Letters, based on the delightfully sarcastic and dry C.S. Lewis book of the same name. The idea was to think about how we were most often tempted. (I would highly recommend this for anyone to try. Seriously. DO IT. You’ll be surprised what the change in perspective might teach you.)

My personal demon/tempter (who I believe was named Sludgefallow or something equally gross-sounding), planned to use nostalgia as a tactic against me. The plan, of which he was quite proud, was to have me make an idol of my past. I would long for life circumstances that were easier, with fewer tax forms and more midnight runs to pancake places. I would think back to friendships I had and assume I could never make new ones that were as deep and significant.

Two years later, I can say that Sludgefallow was on to something there. Nostalgia has this sneaky, sinister way of making the past look all blessings and butterflies until you realize that what you once had…you no longer have. It’s a slideshow of smaller dress sizes, friends you’ve lost contact with, fewer worries and more free time, romanticized in your mind until you want to run away to Taylor University or Neverland or the glory days.

And when you remember you can’t, bitterness and self-pity can show up just as easily as gratitude. Possibly more.

 

One of the boxes.

One of the boxes.

Here’s the bottom line: at the heart of nostalgia is longing. It is a deep appreciation for the simple and beautiful…so much so that it might give past memories an overly-rosy glow. It is an acknowledgment of God’s blessings…but sometimes also accompanied by resentment that those circumstances, emotions, or situations aren’t here right now. It is a way of remembering where you’ve been…and an invitation to become trapped there, back with the what-ifs and could-have-beens.

Like all longings, nostalgia can be a holy desire for good, or an unhealthy obsession with glory. It can be a prompt to gratitude or a weird form of self-coveting (wanting what your past self had that your current self does not).

We were made for desire. We were also made for eternity, and I think the bittersweetness of nostalgia comes from the Fall. Someday, I think, we will remember, and it will be all and only good.

Like every longing, nostalgia has to be put in its proper place. We have to recognize when our flashbacks are driving us to praise God and when they’re contributing to our discontent. And, maybe most importantly, at least for me, we have to remember that the God of years ago is the God of today and of the future.

We have to remember that there are still more boxes to fill.

And, speaking of which, I have a new relic to add to my Nostalgia Collection.

Have you never seen a taco T-shirt for a taco birthday party before? (Clearly, your friends are not as cool as mine.)

Have you never seen a taco T-shirt for a taco birthday party before? (Clearly, your friends are not as cool as mine.)

Also on the topic of nostalgia, this Owl City song is a sonic overview of childhood in the late 80s, early 90s. Enjoy.

Do you have any seemingly useless items you will keep forever and ever because of their personal significance?

2 comments

  1. “I would think back to friendships I had and assume I could never make new ones that were as deep and significant.”
    That. Right there. That pretty much sums up one of my biggest worries about leaving my online school and moving on to college. Though this whole post is pretty much bang on. So thank you for yet another post that hits it on the head.

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