While the past is an exquisite place to visit, it is a menacing place to live.
The embittered wife, annoyed that the husband she married is not the boyfriend she once dated; the overbearing father desperate to relive his athletic career through his son; the young adult missing her college freedoms and friends, dreading her nine-to-five; the despondent Christian, longing to go back to the zeal he once had, all show us that few things threaten today like the joys of yesterday. Laughter abounded once. The family was united for a time. We were beautiful then.
But God does not mean for our hearts to live in yesterday. He gives us fresh mercies each day to enjoy (Lamentations 3:22–23). But passing these, we can travel back in our minds to relive that season’s happiness. Yesterday, hopes were high and life was worth living. Today proves too disappointing. So, with glazed eyes and depressed souls, we become the here-less scarecrows of our former selves who increasingly diminish from the here and now to escape to better days. Our hearts may still beat, but we have stopped living.
When former blessings decay present gratitude; when God gave that job, that boyfriend, that success — and life afterward is worse for it; when we have become tart creatures that begrudge the fall because we once enjoyed spring; when we sigh through our days and retreat into our memories; we have left the safe path. Driving forward while staring into the rearview mirror, we have made the previous experiences a kind of god. And, unfailingly, when we kneel before the past, the present becomes a curse.
What’s Wrong with Nostalgia?
We call it dwelling in the past.
Considered a psychological disorder from the seventeenth century until only recently, nostalgia is the longing for the past which is seen as better than the present or future. From the Greek, nostos (to return home) and algos (pain), nostalgia is acute homesickness for days gone by. It escapes from present unhappiness (or boredom) into what was and cannot be again.
And as nostalgia lusts after that season we expected to last much longer, the question that wisdom never asks threatens to creep into our hearts,
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Ecclesiastes 7:10)
Wisdom, an inquisitor of many questions, gasps when this one is uttered. This is nostalgia’s question. But why not ask it?
1. We are not good judges.
To ask the question assumes the conclusion: that former days were, in fact, better. But this should not be assumed. We neither have a full grasp of the past nor the present.
As Uncle Rico teaches us in Napoleon Dynamite, the past, when retold and worshiped, becomes exaggerated. Previous days get better and better, and achievements become loftier the farther one travels from them. Even grim pasts can be remembered fondly — the Israelites imagined eating meat and bread to the full, though slaves (Exodus 16:3). Hear it from them; they were kings back then.
So it is with us: we photoshop the past in our minds. We forget the fights, the frustration, that season’s pain and uncertainties — the present irritations always seem sharpest. But neither do we have a great view of our current seasons. Older saints tell many stories to verify the truth of what Samuel Rutherford attested: God keeps his best wine in the cellar of suffering — and cellars can feel like jail when we are locked inside. But God prepares a table for us amidst our sorrows. And there, he sits down to eat with us.
2. Nostalgia criticizes our Father.
The question of why the past is better than the present is always addressed to someone. Mother earth. Karma. Dr. Phil. But for most, God.
But faith in God does not wallow in the question. Unbelief questions God and tells us to curse him and die when he takes good from us. Trust sits in the ashes and says between sobs, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
“Why were former days better than these?” — unsatisfied with the obvious answer that God, in his perfect will and governance, saw it best to allow new hardships, refuses to bless his name. It calls the Almighty to the witness stand to give account. It interrogates his goodness. It cross-examines his claims of benevolence. It prosecutes God on allegations of child abuse — he gave stones and serpents when his children wanted bread and fish. Why has God now handed me gravel to chew on? is never a good question.
3. We have more chapters to live.
The question is also not wise because it halts forward progress. It tempts us to believe that the God of yesterday morning’s mercy now hands out rations that aren’t worth waking up for. So we pity ourselves, hit the snooze button, and slumber on toward death.
But overhear Gandalf’s advice to Frodo, as he laments his present life away from the Shire,
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
Many experience days they would not choose to live in. But it is not for us to decide whether God gives or takes away. What is for us to decide is what we will do with the time that God has gifted us. We have more living to do. Maybe more than we wanted, but not more than we ought to have.
Home Is Before Us
Today’s fruit, although perhaps more bitter than yesterday’s, is always the best fruit we can be eating. Why? Because it is the fruit that our Father hands us. And the fruit given to us from he who knows what we need for today, before we ask him, is always the best of all fruit.
But only the best fruit of all in this life. To break the spell of the rearview mirror, we must consider what waits ahead. No matter how delicious past fruit was, no matter how ordinary today’s fruit may seem — neither of these is heaven’s fruit. If today’s good were heaven’s good, then pessimism would be virtuous. But it isn’t. What we receive here are snacks to sustain on our journey to where he who did not spare his own Son will entirely, graciously, give us all things.
Paul describes our life, for now, with the word waiting (Titus 2:13). Not withering. Not reminiscing. Not dwelling in the past. God calls us to remember the past to breed gratefulness and hope for the future mercies which will extend beyond the borders of this world. We do not sit lifeless, looking back on the best times here. We pant for the best times to be lived there. And as we wait, we renounce the empty joys of nostalgia, thank God for our pasts, but put our hope in what is to come.