The Way Things Were (Lost in the Woulds)

Do you ever find yourself longing for “the good old days”?

Whether your good old days were in preschool, grade school, college, or long after grades even mattered, the fact is that all of us have a time we look back on with fondness and wish we could return to. 

COVID-19 has caused us all to look back with longing on life before the coronavirus. Nobody had to social distance, masks were for doctors and dentists, nothing was closed unless it was out of business, and the only thing that separated one church from another was its theology. 

All of that is changed now, and nobody but God knows how long it will last. While there are some fringe voices who say that these changes should be in place permanently regardless of coronavirus, the overwhelming majority of us just want things to go back to the way they were, and won’t be satisfied until they do. 
The discontented nostalgia I see all around me is an uncomfortable reflection of my own heart. 

Here’s what I mean. I spent the first year of my injury in perpetual regret and tears of longing for what I had physically lost… 
From laps around the block to lame in a hospital bed.
From singing harmony with my wife to relying on her to speak for me.
From cooking gourmet meals to being fed soft foods and thickened liquids.

That first year was the hardest of my life. In part because I couldn’t do anything independently besides watch TV, but in larger part because I spent nearly every hour getting lost in “the woulds”.

“If I would have waited out the blizzard…”
“If that truck driver would have watched where he was going…”
“If God would have let us go overseas instead of hospitals and rehab facilities..”

There is a difference between learning from the past and living in it. Often the line is faint and can be hard to see, but discontent is a sure sign that you’ve crossed it. After seven and a half years of being disabled, I’ve crossed that line more often than I care to admit.

Crossing the line between learning from the past and living in the past produces one of two outcomes: bitterness or nostalgia

Bitterness is obviously negative, everyone can agree on that regardless of belief system. Wasting hours brooding about what would have been, could have been, should have been can only result in perpetual regret and despair.  Bitterness is entirely self-focused and can only create more bitterness (or at best, annoyance) in those around us. 

Nostalgia is a little trickier. Because it’s more often portrayed in a positive light. And for the majority of my life I considered it not only harmless but commendable.

 But recently I’ve been confronted with the fact that nostalgia might be less neutral than I once believed. Check out the definition from Merriam-Webster:

Let’s start with the second definition: Excessive yearning for a time period or state to which you can’t return.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying fond memories, but I think we would do well to ask ourselves why we prefer our memories to our present circumstances. Perhaps the reasons are obvious…

“My family used to live together in love and laughter, but now we can’t stand the sight of each other.”
“I used to be young and carefree, but now I’m older, deep in debt and chained to a job I despise.”
“Church used to be filled with hugs and smiles, but now it’s full of masks and social distance.”
“I used to be able-bodied, but now I’m stuck in a wheelchair and can’t do jack for myself.”

The reasons for preferring the former days over today are both endless and valid. That’s why I said nostalgia is tricky. But here’s a thought. What if our longing for the good times of the past is simply God speaking to us of a future greater than anything we’ve ever experienced?

A Scottish pastor named David Gibson wrote a book called Living Life Backward. It’s an exposition of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes and its themes of life, death, satisfaction and vanity.

He had this to say about nostalgia:

“Nostalgia is a form of escapism by taking a vacation in the past instead of grappling with the present or looking to the future in faith.”

He goes on to quote one of CS Lewis’ sermons from The Weight of Glory:

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; for it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—​​​the beauty, the memory of our own past—​​​are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a far country we have not yet visited.”

Gibson follows up that quote with this fitting summary: 

“When you experience nostalgia, your heart is longing for a more beautiful person than you have ever met or a more beautiful place than you have ever known. You think you’re longing for the past, but the past was never as good as your mind is telling you it was. And, says Lewis, God is giving you in that moment one of the most profound glimpses of the intensity of perfection and beauty that you have actually yet to see. What is in fact pulling on your heartstrings is the future: it’s heaven; it’s your sense of home and belonging that has just cracked the surface of your life, for just a moment, and then is gone.”

But you might have noticed that I’ve failed to address the first definition of nostalgia from Merriam-Webster: homesickness. 

We all get homesick. Whether we leave our country, our state, our city, or our friends and family, somehow we manage feel deep inside that there’s somewhere we belong and we know when we’re not there. 

I feel like I’m cheating by filling this post up with so many quotes from the same book, but I can’t say it better than David Gibson does in Living Life Backward:

“God has placed eternity in our hearts. We’re built for home, for a place we cannot see yet, and so when we get that flashing moment of nostalgia, it’s like tiny pinpricks of that eternal home breaking through into our present life.”

We can’t go back in time to change decisions or relive experiences. And we won’t find the home we were built for anywhere on this dying world. 

But there is a pleasure far deeper than we’ve ever experienced and a place for which we’ll feel homesick until we finally arrive. 

There is hope for us. For you, for me. We weren’t built to wander and pine. Our eyes are set forward, not backwards, for a reason. 

Look to Jesus, not to your past. Let Him be your present and your future. Home is just around the corner. 

2 Corinthians 5:1-5 | For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

What is it that you’re truly longing for? Has your longing been satisfied? 

Are you home?