Nostalgia is about wanting to go back to what was… and that’s not us. Nostalgia is desire to return to the past and such thinking steals our hope and our future. The sin of the Israelites as they started into the wilderness was nostalgia. “The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.” Exodus 16:3
I know a number of people who would say, “Oh if we could just go back to the way it was when I was a kid.” In 2016, there were polls taken which found many Americans wanted to return to the 1950’s, President Trump’s campaign even capitalized on this in the famous slogan “Make America Great Again.” I am not faulting the President merely pointing out his campaign struck a cord of returning to the past. Today there is a growing sentiment among Americans expressed in the idea, “I wish we could get back to how it was before the pandemic.” I know that is not how people say it, they say, “if only we could get back to normal.” But this line of thinking hides two devious sins. What is worse is that like most sin there is a thin veneer of “the Good” to cover it. In this case the thin veneer is innocence; in some ways what people are longing for is the innocence of the past. We want to be innocent of the suffering and the pain caused by life. This is certainly a great idea, we want to be innocent of all our sin and thus from the terrible consequences of sin. Certainly, the issues we have gone through this year are not punishments for sin (I wrote about that here). However, the issues we have faced certainly have shown us where sin has been and is corrupting our society (for more read here). We have seen how companies value profits and executive salaries over the welfare of workers. We have seen how we truly hold animosity for others who do not share our opinions, and how we are unable to control our anger. We have seen how people are greedy and hoard resources instead of taking what they need. And all of this leads me to my first point.
The first sin of nostalgia is forgetting. Most people are unable to accurately remember the past. We tend to either romanticize the past or demonize it depending on our experiences. We tend to either remember the good times or the bad times and downplay the other. Notice the Israelites remembered the fact they had food in Egypt but forgot they were under forced labor. They were suffering from a lack of food and so remembered the abundant food in Egypt, but the cost was they overlooked the reality of forced labor. We do that also, consider the survey’s which said people want to return to the 1950’s. Obviously these people wanting to relive the mid-twentieth century were suffering from selective memory. I am sure that many surveyed were children in the 50’s and remembered their innocence, not the stress of their parents. Most probably gave little thought to issues like the Korean War, the threat of nuclear extinction, or the government sanctioned racism of their childhood.
Unfortunately, today’s suffering makes us long for the ease of the past. Pandemic, economic downturn, and racial tension are a reality today and produce suffering; I could respond with longing for the ease of the 1980’s. But that is because I am forgetting my Dad’s fear the first time he dealt with an AIDS patient, his fear for me as violent crime was at an all time high, his stress over the impact of drugs on the culture around us. The longing for innocence is a good thing, but when I mask it with the past I am covering up the realities of sin and suffering which hurt others.
Just like Israel in the wilderness, we fail to rightly associate the suffering of life with human sin. We want to go back to 1950’s America, forgetting that in the 1950’s sin was producing war and perpetuating racial segregation. We want to go back to a society (and economy) before the pandemic, forgetting how a pre-pandemic society built on selfishness is one of the causes of the pandemic. We forget that companies not caring about workers health lead to infections and healthcare costs. We forget that our inadequate healthcare system lead to patients receiving $1 million bills from hospitals. Nostalgia makes us forget about the realities of sin, as we dreamily say, “If only.”
The second sin of nostalgia is selfishness. As I live in the past, I deny my children a present. My children are going through the years I remember so fondly. My oldest child is, right now, at an age I remember as one of my happiest. The more I live in the past, the less I am present with my children thus denying them the joy I experienced. I can share memories with them, yes. But I can only share, I must not try too hard to recreate. Imagine the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years saying to their children, “Oh, if only you would have tasted the Egyptian food, you’d hate this manna.” I think this helps make sense of the Israelite grumbling. Parents denied the present of their children by living in the past. How could children be expected to see the miracles of the daily provision of manna when they were being constantly reminded that in Egypt there was no need of manna?
I can recall my past for my kids. I can take them to places which were special to me in my childhood. I can share my fond memories. But when I start longing for the past I cease to live in the present. If I take the present away from myself and my children, and we no longer live to make the present better. What is truly harmful about trying to relive the past is that if we live in the past TODAY IS OUR FUTURE. If we are trying to reconstruct the past we will end up making the same mistakes which have brought us to these circumstances. Rather we should start with today to make tomorrow better.
Rather, the Bible calls us away from nostalgia toward HOPE.
Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. Philippians 3:13
Paul wants us to keep our minds on the future, because unlike the past the future is full of innocence without the taint of evil. If we live in the present with an eye to the future– the future God wants to provide– we will live to help create a future without sin. God has a world of purity and goodness in mind for us, nostalgia takes our eyes off that world. We are called to anticipate what is being born (see Romans 8), not what the world was. We are called to move through the suffering and pain into glory, and any longing for the past is a longing for what is at best a partial good. Our calling is to live for the future right now not that past. Do not retreat, do not look back, press on to a glorious future.