We tend to think about past times, especially good ones, in terms of a Golden Age. Reflecting on those times often makes us nostalgic.
Growing up, I’d often hear older people, using cliched aphorisms, tell about their early life experience. “When I was a kid, I had to walk to school through 2 feet of snow uphill both ways.” Indeed, such sayings were good for a (half-hearted) laugh. But by saying it, more than for humor’s sake, they also meant to compare their experience with what they thought mine was like. Theirs was hard, mine easy.
Yet at the same time, you could hear in their voice a kind of glowing sentimentality about it all. Whether or not they really experienced the difficulties they meant to communicate with their aphorisms, there was something they missed about being younger.
Longing for Better Times
We all get nostalgic. Regardless of how old we are, we all look back on our lives and think of experiences, seasons, traditions, and more with deep fondness. Our hearts long to recover the feelings fostered in us by those moments.
Nostalgia is sometimes evoked when facing challenging times or situations. We compare the present experience with a former experience that was, in our minds anyway, somehow better.
We are living right now in one of those challenging times. We can cite these in terms of global circumstances like the pandemic. Social unrest of many different kinds affects us as a nation. As for personal challenges, some of us have lost jobs. Other have lost friends or family. We could all name many other things.
As we try to process our present experience mentally and emotionally, we are likely visited by feelings of nostalgia. We long for times other than these when things were not so hard.
Yet, it is not just difficult or challenging times that make us look back and long for the good old days. Nostalgia sometimes catches us by surprise for positive reasons too.
Reliving the Good Times
Less than a year ago, my family moved across the country, leaving our side of a duplex condo and moving into a single-family home. We have two children who love to play outside. Our condo had no yard, only a crumbling blacktop driveway and some gravel. Our new home has a modest fenced yard. One evening I was struck by nostalgia as I was mowing the lawn. While pacing back-and-forth across the lawn with the mower, my children frolicked and played around me with innocent abandon.
My heart was filled with a deep satisfaction in that moment. I used to do the same when my dad was mowing. My mind is filled with such great memories of playing in my yard when I was kid. In our former residence, I had longed for such a yard for my kids. Seeing them playing around me made me remember my own experience as a kind of gift. I’m thankful for it, and grateful that my children get to have something similar.
It is not uncommon for us to have a sense of a Golden Age where we are nostalgic about some time in history when things were much better than they are now. Some people think of the 1990s, when the economy was good and many people were realizing the American Dream. Others look to the post-WWII era, which brought the flourishing of Christianity along with its positive social influence, the baby boom, and renewed hopes and dreams for the future of America and the world. Still others recall different moments, times when people were selfless heroes and institutions were trustworthy, or when neighborhoods were safe and a gallon of gasoline cost less than one dollar.
Not Forever Ago
For many of us, the Golden Age was just three months ago. We’re nostalgic about the heavy traffic we had to navigate on our daily commute, packed-out dine-in restaurants on the weekends, going to the movies, browsing the racks at the shopping mall, viewing major league sporting events on TV, or heading out to see your favorite local band perform at a neighborhood bar.
This present nostalgia is saddening, frustrating, and sometimes angering. We grieve what we’ve lost. We are irritated because we miss what felt normal. And we are angry that all of it has suddenly been taken away from us, with few signs indicating when we’ll get it back. We are nostalgic for what we call “normal.” We want to return to normal. We feel it so bad that it hurts.
A recent broadcast on NPR highlights the work of a psychologist who studies nostalgia. While we often think of nostalgia in the ways I’ve been describing—feelings of fondness for times past accompanied with an ache of loss—the researcher ties feelings of nostalgia to a sense of deep meaningfulness.
An old friend of mine was born in Germany early during WWII. He recounts his experience of Leipzig, the city where he lived, as it was bombed during Allied raids. You can see in his eyes and hear in his voice a deep nostalgia for those times. This is not because he longs to relive such horrific and terrifying moments. Rather, it is because he tangibly recalls being held in the arms of his grandmother as she sang hymns to comfort him during the bombings.
The NPR story recounts how the researcher spent time interviewing people who were children in England during WWII. Interestingly, my friend went on to marry one such person, an Englishwoman whose experience of the war she tells in much the same was as he does. Similar stories come from the others interviewed by the researcher. Of course, the war and the fear were awful. But their memories tend to recall more meaningful parts of the experience—the people they were with and the deep bonds they developed because of their shared circumstances.
Perhaps feelings of nostalgia seem to resonate with such meaningfulness because our memories of the good times and the difficult times are always those that we’ve shared with others.
Do we Really Yearn for “Happy” Times?
Our society highly values the so-called pursuit of happiness. To be happy, it is believed, is to live the good life. Yet, the stories of war-born children communicate a sense of the good life in a manner that is contrary to what any of us would call “happy.” Their nostalgia is rooted in the sense that they share an intimate connection with other survivors—family and friends who lived to tell the story. For my friend and his wife, when they share about their experience as children during the war, however tragic it was, you can almost hear a sense of joy in their words. It’s like they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Rather, the experience has become definitive for how they have experienced so much of the rest of their lives.
As I write this, the Christian church has just celebrated a major holiday called Pentecost. It’s the last in a series of holidays over a period of about one and half months that begins with the tragedy of Jesus’s crucifixion and death, the surprising celebration of his resurrection a few days later, and finally his departure when he ascended into heaven. Pentecost occurred when Jesus’s followers were gathered following these deeply meaningful moments they shared together.
Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church, since it’s the day that Jesus’s followers began proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’s redemption for all people. Things wouldn’t be easy for this fledgling church. Each of Jesus’s closest followers who were together on the day of Pentecost was martyred for the Good News they shared, save for one, who died in exile. But however difficult their lives became, they shared that story with joy, as various historical accounts tell us. The deeply meaningful experiences they shared seemed to transcend whatever challenges they faced, resulting in a joy that characterized their lives.
When We Look Back on These Days
If we feel a deep sense of meaningfulness when experiencing nostalgia, and if the good life goes deeper than merely fleeting feelings of happiness and instead toward joy, perhaps we can wonder about these questions:
What will we feel nostalgic about after these trying times? Who are the people that you are with? What memories have you made with them that will carry you through trying times in the future? Where are you finding deeply meaningful moments in all of this? What will you ache with sadness to experience again because it has brought you, perhaps not happiness, but something like a strange and unexpected joy? Could these days possibly be the ones we’ll look back on, a Golden Age of sorts?
Like my friends with their stories about childhood during WWII, our present experience will leave a defining mark on our lives. Their painful moments are remembered with a nostalgic joy.
What will be the ones you tell about?