“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” That incisive quip come from Peter DeVries’ novel The Tent of Wickedness.
I know something about nostalgia. After all, I’ve spent a lot of time in churches, and they’re hothouses of it: rosy nostalgia for the days when the pews were full every Sunday; golden nostalgia for the times when people tithed and giving always exceeded expenses; violet nostalgia for seasons when everyone was passionate for a shared mission venture; blue and pink pastel-hued nostalgia for years when the nursery was overflowing, and royal blue nostalgia for the tenure of a favorite pastor.
While many churches are skilled cultivators of nostalgia, a lot of people have thriving memory gardens in their backyards. I’m at a point in life, a bit because of age but more for other reasons, in which I have to be careful not to expand my “forget-me-not” plot and not to gather too many “the-way-we-were” bouquets.
Memory is tricky, or we play tricks on and with our memories, or both. We don’t really remember precisely what happened to us, but what we felt and feel about what happened to us, what we’ve learned and are learning from it, and who we became and are becoming because of it.
Soren Kierkegaard famously said “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.” To the extent that we understand our lives, it’s in retrospect, not prospect. These days, without particularly intending to do it, I’m recalling reasons for regret and rejoicing, disappointment and delight, tears and laughter.
I’m dreaming about people long dead and replaying incidents my conscious mind had forgotten. People from “then” mingle with people “now” and remote experiences merge with recent events Waking and sleeping, it seems I’m trying to frame my story in some sort of coherence, looking for continuities amid discontinuities, and attempting to fashion a wholeness—an integrity—out of pieces and fragments.
It’s important work, but not as an end itself. I don’t want looking back at what was to distract me from looking around at what is. It would be a mistake to allow recollection of times and people who are gone to keep me from recognition of the opportunities, friends, and loved ones who are here.
When we do it well, remembering is liberating.
I’m trying to let go of a handful of long-lingering resentments, because holding on to them serves no good purpose. I don’t want to spend remaining time and energy on maintaining a tight grip on brittle anger; I want, instead, to use that energy to bless, affirm, and encourage.
I’m also disciplining myself to practice gratitude. Because I have a melancholy disposition, it’s easy for me to let the loneliness I’ve felt to overshadow the love I’ve received. Because I’ve worked hard, I can gloss over the help others have given me. Because I’m sharply aware of my failures, I’m forgetful of grace. I can get stuck in a lack of thankfulness.
If I’m ungrateful, though, I’m also dishonest; and, when dishonest, unfree. Gratitude releases me for life in the present. It energizes me to love as I have been loved, to help as I have been helped, and to forgive as I have been forgiven.
I don’t want to live in nostalgia or fantasy; neither is bad as a place to visit. The gladdest place to live, though, is the present: this moment, this breath, and this wonder.