On Nostalgia

noun: nostalgia; plural noun: nostalgias
a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

C. S. Lewis, in his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy, makes one of the most profound statements on nostalgia I have ever heard. “It is not settled happiness,” Lewis claims, “but momentary joy that glorifies the past.” As I pondered this sentence, I thought about the “glorified” moments of my past, and I found Lewis’s claim to be undeniably true. In my past, it’s not the moments of constant happiness that I look back on with such rich memories, but the instances of “momentary joy.” For example: my junior high years. Most people look back to junior high with an awkward dread. Most people get sweaty palms just thinking about their 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years. The awkward encounters with the opposite sex, the struggles to fit in, and oh yea, puberty! But for me, junior high brings up a kind of “wistful affection.” But why? It was a season of life in which I lost my aunt and uncle – an aunt and uncle who lived three houses up the street and whom I saw almost every day – in a tragic accident. It was a season of life in which I was constantly in trouble at school. It was a season of life in which I had a bad temper and got in fights with my dad often. But it was also the season of my first kiss and a season of sleepovers and momentary success on the golf course and early glimpses of freedom and autonomy. It certainly was not a season of “settled happiness,” but it was one that could be defined by “momentary joy,” and it’s that stuff, those fleeting flashes of sheer bliss, which human beings live for.

Another example is my senior year of high school. For me, as for many people, this season was incredibly fun. But it was not easy. If my senior year of high school had one constant, honestly, it was girl trouble. I went from getting out of an unhealthy relationship to pursuing – and being rejected in the course of pursuing – what I thought at the time would be a healthy relationship. And it was no short pursuit – it essentially took up the entire year. I fought serious feelings of rejection and loneliness in that season. First the first time in years I felt like I had found great friends, just in time to move three hours away from all of them. However, it was also a season of incredible moments of joy. It was a season in which I took a road trip (a short one, albeit) to King’s Island with some of the best friends I’ve ever had in October during Scare Fest. It was a season that included winning the state championship as a golf team. It was a season of Young Life Camp (the best week of your life, guaranteed!). It was a season of spontaneity, shenanigans, and, occasionally, stupidity. Despite its troubles and its trials, this season was littered with sparks of momentary joy, with that stuff.

So what’s my point? Do I think we need to be content with seasons of settled happiness? Is it a crazy, horrible, foolish thing that we get so nostalgic for seasons that maybe weren’t so great after all? As Lewis claims throughout Surprised by Joy, it’s really neither of these things. I think, rather, that God providentially places these momentary sparks of joy in our lives and uses them as road signs, as mile markers. Every human being is wired with a capacity for joy, a capacity that develops in him or her a great longing for more of that stuff. But the thing is, we don’t fully get to experience that stuff on this side of eternity. Once the King returns to fully establish his Kingdom, that stuff, those moments of pure bliss, those moments where we feel “infinite,” (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) will be all that we know. They are placed in our lives now to create in us a longing, and that longing will be fulfilled by, and only by, our Savior. We aren’t supposed to ignore them, nor is it wrong to look back on them with nostalgia. We simply must remember that those moments are not the end in themselves; they point to the end – the coming Kingdom of King Jesus, a Kingdom full of that stuff.


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