I love old stuff. I have a WWII era record player that I crank up from time to time to play some Bing Crosby or big band music. I’m refurbishing a 100-year-old typewriter (that I actually plan on using, by the way). My bookshelves are filled with way more old books than new. In short: I’m hopelessly nostalgic.
The word nostaligia has an interesting history. A recent article in The Atlantic gives this explanation, “Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term in his 1688 medical dissertation, from the Greek nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain.” In this sense, nostaligia is a painful longing for home.
For me, old stuff reminds me of childhood vacations spent exploring my grandparent’s antique store in Upper Peninsula Michigan.
Nostalgic feelings give both a sense of pleasure and sorrow; a joy in the past juxtaposed with a degree of sadness that our memories cannot be entirely recaptured or perfectly repeated. This sentiment is illustrated in the Thomas Wolfe novel You Can’t Go Home Again, about an author who writes affectionately of his hometown only to discover that he is no longer welcome there.
Wolfe is right. You can never really go home. People and places change. And when you do go home you find, that not only have they changed, but you’ve changed as well. So nostalgia is rightly defined as including sorrow or pain. But it is an emotion that permeates the human experience—a mixed cocktail of delight and despair.
Humanity suffers from this nagging desire for some elusive reunion, a marriage of the past with the present, the discovery of the familiar. From the day of our birth, we are on a quest to find a place of peace and joy and acceptance. But right when we think we’ve found it, it dissipates before our eyes. At times this utopia only seems possible when we’re looking in the rear view mirror of our memory and reconstructing some ideal that resonates with our inner longing. But we can’t go back there. We can’t go home.
Can it be that no earthly place can satisfy our sojourning souls?
The final paragraph in The Atlantic offers this quote for curing nostalgia, “Create new loves for the person suffering from love sickness; find new joys to erase the domination of the old.” But can this common experience really be relieved by progressively moving on to newer loves and newer joys? It seems that this advice might only perpetuate the problem.
Is moving on really the only way to cure nostalgia?
Or does this experience, this desire, point to a deeper need, and to a greater well of belonging and fulfillment? As. C.S. Lewis once observed, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Perhaps our solution is not to be found in constantly moving on to newer things, but in returning to something really old—older than time itself.
I believe we sense it in all the little deja vu moments when our thoughts become reflective. Maybe it’s a specific smell, or the tune of a forgotten song, or a daydream of the “good old days,” that strike us as so powerfully familiar and yet so oddly foreign.
These traces of joy seem to be leading us somewhere, if we were just able to follow them. They are like bread crumbs seen only in our peripheral vision that disappear when we turn to focus on them. Perhaps these painful longings for home that pepper our thoughts are designed to bring us back to where we really belong and to point us forward to an enduring city. But maybe these feelings aren’t really about a place after all. Maybe they’re all pointing us to a Person, to the One for whom we were made.
“There was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”
— Blaise Pascal