“We have all got our ‘good old days’ tucked away inside our hearts, and we return to them in dreams like cats to favorite armchairs” (Brian Carter).
LIKE ALL GOOD THINGS, NOSTALGIA HAS ITS DANGERS. Today we will begin with a warning against the dangers of nostalgia, and then close with an encouragement to embrace the good side of it.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, there is this wise exhortation: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” I like Ivern Ball’s more modern way of saying the same thing: “The past should be a springboard, not a hammock.” If we spend too much time in the past, or we simply refuse to let go of its treasures, we paralyze ourselves as far as today’s work is concerned. So nostalgia needs a warning label: “Handle with care.”
But I agree with Dan Bartolovic, who said, “A trip to nostalgia now and then is good for the spirit, as long as you don’t set up housekeeping.” Kept in balance with other priorities, a joyful remembrance of the past can refresh us, improve our perspective, and energize us.
There is a wistfulness about nostalgia that, in itself, is beneficial. As Milton S. Eisenhower put it, “The essence of nostalgia is an awareness that what has been will never be again.” In the world as it now is, the only thing that never changes is that everything changes. Nothing we enjoy today is ours to keep for very long, and it would be a fool who, looking back at what once was and can never be again, had no desire to honor the past or be inspired by its memory. To be sure, some of what has been left behind is evil, but not all of it is, and the good things should be gratefully — and even sentimentally — recalled.
Sometimes even the painful past must be remembered. Elie Wiesel, a man whose work has altered the path of my life as much as any writer, spent his passionate life reminding the world of the Holocaust. Some things we dare not forget, and it is often the storyteller’s burden to bear witness and make sure that forgetfulness is not our undoing. So as a person whose heart is deeply moved by the past, I remain unrepentant in my nostalgia. I pray that my nostalgia is pure, and that it strengthens me for today. It is no small part of who I am.
“The deeper the nostalgia and the more complete the fear, the purer, the richer the word and the secret” (Elie Wiesel).