The Season For Memory

I was struck the other evening with a sharp, painful stab of nostalgia. I didn’t see it coming. I was lying in bed catching up on the day’s Twitter chatter, when suddenly I caught a theme, reports from so many friends across the country announcing such joy on their campuses. Yes, I remembered, this is the season for graduation! Unexpectedly, I became deeply nostalgic.

I remember it well: To see the genuine, appropriate pride in the faces of those young people; To see the beaming love of parents and siblings; To catch a hint of the dreams blossoming about the days out ahead—when you devote your life to educating the young, this is the grand symbol of what it is all about. Suddenly I missed it all—deeply, painfully—missed what I had once enjoyed so immensely.

But why the pain? Why not just pleasant memories? Could memory, even such beautiful memories, be warning us about something?

I began to think. It must have something to do with one of life’s relentless realities: That was then, this is now. Or to put it another way: You surely can’t go home again. Jen Pollock Michel, in a marvelous recent article on nostalgia in First Things, begins: “Is there any dirtier word than ‘nostalgia’”? Get over it, in other words. Grow up. You can’t go back there even if you want to. You’ve opened another chapter. Live fully into your new chapter.

I have this image of the once-accomplished athlete who can’t shake the memory of that last shot that won the game. How exquisite it was, the ball perfectly launched, the stands emptying and erupting with the roar of victory. Athletes often play those scenes over and over, with joy to be sure, but with a touch of pain. Something’s gone. It becomes rather sad when our identities get tangled up with a defining memory.

But still, what to do with nostalgia? In a recent piece in The New Yorker, the novelist Michael Chabon says that “the nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.” Maybe this gets closer to my experience. I get that “ache,” that’s for sure. And yes, maybe I was feeling that sense of “lost connection.” You can’t recreate the connections, the community, the joys of celebration from which you are now permanently disconnected.

But maybe the pang of nostalgia lies even deeper. The Greek root of the word nostalgia is nostos or homecoming, coupled with the other root algos or pain. There’s that pain again, but amazingly, deep in the DNA of nostalgia is the memory of home, a kind of fullness, perhaps, something whole and good, something to which we yearn to return.

But here’s the deal: “Nostalgia,” Michel adds, “is a word to signal spiritual hunger—a word to suggest a world existing beyond the present one, before the present one.” Ah, that’s why these moments of nostalgia can penetrate so deeply. The memory is really the tip of the iceberg. Down deep there is spiritual hunger, a restlessness, as Augustine describes it, that continues until we rest in the arms of a loving God.

Michel continues:

. . . people formed by the stories of Genesis 1 and 2 do not so blithely accept the cosmic rupture of death and disease, even the disappointments of the everyday. We hold to the sense that the world should be different than it is. Better than it is. Nostalgia is a right appraisal of our story: A perfect world has indeed fallen from grace. As a word, it is instructive about our grief in this world, even instructive about hope.

Yes, maybe the pain is meant to be “instructive.” Maybe it tips us off about hope beyond the grief. Maybe it’s one of the signs that the world, and my life, were formed in perfect love. We lost something along the way. We sense deeply there was a home. And we want to go home again.

Like the prodigal son, we wake up one morning to an intense, painful desire to go home to the arms of the loving Father. But can we get there in this life? Well, yes, in moments of utter stillness when the world shines out with radiance. Or when we enter into deep prayer where God resides in silence. We get glimpses of the mystery of what it is like to arrive home. We’re not there yet, but we know the Father waits, even now, with open arms, to heal the pain, to forgive the mistakes, to ease the loss, to welcome us home.