This was our first Thanksgiving without Mom, which put everyone in a funk, except for Madeline, who seemed not to notice her great-grandmother’s absence and was therefore her usual cheerful self, pulling the rest of us out of the dumps by the sheer force of her personality, as only a two-year-old can. She was assisted by Joan, who was not content to let sorrow have the final word, and ministered to us through the sacraments of turkey and pumpkin pie.
I began the day driving into town past my childhood home on Broadway Street, remembering when Dad would cook the turkey on the Weber grill out in the barn, while Mom conducted her symphony of baking in the kitchen. Lee and Mary Lee Comer’s son and his family live there now. I know them well, and almost stopped in to visit, I know they would have welcomed me, but I didn’t want to contaminate their holiday with my gloom, so just slowed to a stop at the curb and looked at the house and thought about when Mom was with us and how much she hated Thanksgiving, until a dozen or so years ago when it moved from her house to ours and she became its greatest champion.
My mother was never one to lose herself in the good, old days, never one to be trapped in the amber of time.
Nostalgia is thick this time of year, which I used to enjoy, though now I confess to feeling suffocated by it. After 56 Christmases in Indiana, I’m growing weary of tradition and would be quite happy to find myself in the Caribbean on Christmas morning with Joan, sitting on the beach, staring out at the crystal water, our pale, pasty Midwestern bodies darkening in the sun. Our son Sam will be in Miami this Christmas, happily flaunting convention. A Quaker in the army spending Christmas at the beach. I never saw that coming, but there you have it. And I say, “Good for Sam!”
The word nostalgia has its roots in the Greek language, derived from the words meaning “homecoming” and “pain.” Nostalgia was for centuries considered a debilitating and sometimes even fatal medical condition manifesting itself in extreme homesickness. Isn’t that interesting? The ancients believed you and I could literally nostalgia ourselves to death. Then the meaning of nostalgia shifted a bit, to Bing Crosby singing I’ll Be Home For Christmas in 1943, and got all wrapped up with warm, fuzzy memories of childhood, so that over time we forgot what the Greeks knew so well—that our obsession with the past can jeopardize our future. I never fully appreciated that until this Thanksgiving morning when I was sitting like an idiot in front of my childhood home instead of being home with my wife anticipating the arrival of our family and friends.
Our obsession with our past can jeopardize our future.
Especially when our grip on the past is so tenacious, so resolute, we cannot reach toward the new. I recently watched a documentary about Lyndon Johnson, in which several of his cabinet members spoke about his inability to move America out of the Vietnam War, because he could not admit his previous understandings of the war had been mistaken. The footage revealed a man dying inch by inch. It made me think of the times in my own life when I could not embrace a new vision because I was so wedded to an old one. Our obsession with our past can jeopardize our future.
When Abraham Maslow spoke about our hierarchy of needs, he said our most basic ones were food, water, warmth, and rest. While it is true those things are essential to life, it is also true we must have a dream, a goal, something to reach toward, lest we be trapped in the amber of time and tradition.
The problem with nostalgia is that it tells only a half-truth. It remembers the simplicity, but not the difficulty. Nostalgia sands smooth the rough edges, sweetens the bitter, until our past seems infinitely superior to our future. But it is an incomplete remembrance. I’ve been reading Gary Paulsen’s book, Father Water, Mother Woods, in which he recalls his childhood in northern Minnesota. While he describes his outdoor adventures in rich detail, he dispensed in a half-sentence what drove him to the woods—the violent alcoholism of his parents. It is an incomplete remembrance.
If you must choose between the past and the future, choose the future. For we must have a dream, a goal, something to reach toward. Jesus had a dream—to bring good tidings to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to proclaim God’s kindness.
When he shared that dream at his hometown synagogue, he was ridiculed.
What do you want to bet that if Jesus had promised to make Nazareth great again, they would have cheered him on?
It’s that all-important word again that would have done it. The appeal to nostalgia. A summons to the past, not the future. But that past is always an incomplete remembrance.
This past Thanksgiving, sitting in front of my childhood house, I forgot about Madeline. I forgot I had a son getting married this summer. I forgot Joan. I forgot all of you. I forgot Spencer’s dream of being a farmer. I forgot I had a book to write, a church to pastor, a world to better. I forgot my duty to the future, which is humanity’s greatest duty.
Trapped in the amber of time, I forgot that which should never be forgotten—that nostalgia requires no faith, no confidence in God, no trust in humanity’s dedication to a better world. Nostalgia demands only that we remember imperfectly, that we forget the shadows of our past in order to elevate a perfection that never was.
Thus, does fear invariably say, “Look back.”
While faith says, “Look forward.”