Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be

One of the sweetest things about being a Dad is getting to enjoy again all those things I’d forgotten I loved in the years since becoming a grown up. With all the hubbub between being five years old and now–what with taking Iowa tests, discovering girls, discovering rejection by girls, trying to impress my fellow adolescents, going to college, getting married, struggling to get a job and keep it, figuring out what politics and religion are all about, learning more than I’d like about the ugliness which human beings can perform, and generally getting shoehorned into the “Work, Buy, Consume, Die” world of 21st Century American life–I had clean forgotten a number of really important things.

For instance, snow is cold! Water is wet–and fun! Squirrels are amazing! Stories at bedtime and songs from Mom after the lights go out are two of the most heart-rendingly wonderful things in the world. And there’s more where that came from! Being with your family in a car on the way to a ferry dock on Puget Sound for a long luxurious Memorial Day Vacation on Lopez Island is an adventure that equals anything Christopher Columbus ever embarked on. Puppets are enormous fun, both to make and to play with. Candle light is beautiful. In fact, pretty much everything is exciting and amazing and only seeing everything for a long time has rendered me unable to see that. There was a time–and it comes back to me with great poignancy–when I knew it well.

When those times come back to me it is easy for me to long for the past. And, as the world gets darker with war, terrorism and fear on the horizon and the likelihood that it’s not going to lighten up anytime soon, it’s easy, I think for a lot of people to retreat into a wish for the past, as though things were just way better then or as if the task for the future is to re-create the past. The fond wish “If only I could feel again as I did then!” is particularly tempting when the future promises to be hard and the past beckons to us with all the rough edges buffed off as a Golden Time when life was beautiful.

The best antidote for this is to remember two things: First, the past was pretty much like the present: you had your share of trials then, as now. And second, one of the sweetest things about the past was that then, as now, what your really wanted was not another time, but Heaven.

That second point is tricky, but it’s particularly important for parents to understand, lest they misunderstand their kids or take away their hope. It boils down to this: just as adults often wish they could have their Golden Youth back when the going gets rough, so Youth (who don’t think things are so golden quite often) wish they could hurry up and get to the Future when adults have it easy and don’t have to go through all the struggles they do. For adults to develop too much of a fixation on the past or, worse, to tell their kids to cling to their youth as long as possible since the future is really pretty black is to entice themselves and their kids to the sin of despair. It’s also, by the way, false to what is best in youth, including their own youth.

For youth are profoundly driven to long for heroism and “cry for the moon”. That’s not naïve. That’s a gift from God. It’s what we adults remember about our own youth that makes it golden. We are built for hope because we are made by God and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. But hope is always ordered toward the future, not the present. As St. Paul says, “Who hopes for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24). And, in fact, we hope for the better things in the future, not because we really want bigger cars, better jobs, or all the other goods of earth, but because we really hope for heaven. That’s why, when we reach the age where we have a pretty good job or a nice car or whatnot, we aren’t satisfied and we cast around looking for happiness–and sometime mistaking it for the past. The reality is, we weren’t fully happy then just as we aren’t fully happy now. Only (if we are wise) we will realize that we aren’t happy now because earth cannot fulfill our desires. Only heaven can.

So it is that youth and age have something to teach each other in the Kingdom of God. As parents, we owe it to our children, not only to confirm them in hope, but to teach them what to hope for. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a good job, nice things, and so forth. But for many Americans that’s about the limit of their hope. If we communicate that to our children we are giving them a road map to despair. If, however, we teach them that they are greater than the world and made for eternity with God, we will learn from them what we still need to know and speak to them a truth that God has placed in every human heart. It is up to us to remember that eternity is not found either in the future or the past, but with God, who is eternal life himself.

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