Nostalgia may be the dominant force in modern culture.
Popular TV shows long since cancelled are receiving new life. Gilmore Girls is coming to Netflix almost 10 years after the show’s run on network television ended. Other shows are being rebooted or recast.
Virtually every hit movie is a derivative of something that was successful in the past. Whether it was a book, TV show, comic book, or movie, the completely original film seems rare these days.
It can be tempting to write off nostalgia as nothing more than the last gasps of an extended adolescence. We want to relive joys from our younger years and recapture cherished memories.
In a way that may be true. After all, nostalgia can be used as a replacement for honoring the past through traditions by simply commoditizing it.
Within the church, nostalgia is often used as an excuse to avoid doing the hard work of understanding modern culture and simply calling people to embrace a bygone era.
But that is only part of the story. Nostalgia is more than a pining glance backwards. In reality, it is a longing look forward that is simply misplaced.
In his masterful sermon, The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis explains how we so often misidentify the desires we have.
In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.
But the matter is not settled. It is something beyond beauty. It may be called nostalgia, romanticism or adolescence, but those only scratch the surface of what this longing really is.
All of those things never truly satisfy us. Nostalgia never truly gives us that same feeling we had before. It only grants a fleeting glimmer before it slips away.
Time does not allow us to hold on and stay put. It drags us ever forward even as many try clinging to long lost memories. But it’s not really the memories we want, it’s the experience. The feeling we had.
Prior to his conversion, Lewis’ life was characterized by an Ahab-like journey to find this joy (or the German word sehnsucht, as he called it). But, as he writes in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, the white whale proved ever allusive. Each one of us knows this all too well.
You can never reclaim a first experience. The river of time has swept it away from us and allows us only a momentary wisp before it vanishes again.
Yet, we continue to chase because something inside of us will not let go—no matter how maddening the chase may be, no matter how hopeless it all appears.
In reality, what we chase by looking in the mirror to the nostalgic past is actually available for us in the perfected future.
Lewis came to understand this when he encountered Christ. The joy he thought he had left behind him was actually awaiting him. The longings he could not satisfy would find their satisfaction in a far off (but nearing) country.
As he wrote in Mere Christianity, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
Nostalgia cannot satisfy the desires we place on it because it was never intended to. It was not designed to point backwards into our hagiographic memories, but to turn our eyes forward.
When you feel that tinge of sadness for what you have left behind, let that serve as a reminder of where you are going in Christ.
Reorient your nostalgia away from the faded glories in the past and toward the unsurpassable glory that awaits the follower of Jesus in the future.
Rightly ordered, nostalgia looks forwards, not backwards.