Fathom Mag

Noxious Nostalgia

Published on:
March 9, 2023
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5 min.
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I spotted a lament posted on Facebook by an old friend I’ll call Frank. In his eloquent post, he mourned the fact that there were no longer any diners in his suburb where older retired gents could while away their mornings drinking coffee and solving the problems of the world. 

Frank had grown up in the area. When he was a boy, his town was a rural enclave that had a diner, a barbershop, three churches, and four bars. To hear him tell it, the town was once a northern outpost of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. But the ensuing decades had swallowed this little corner of The Way Things Were Meant To Be, paving Frank’s paradise with neon-lit strip malls and subdivisions lined with beige McMansions. 

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His Facebook post and the ensuing dialogue in his comments section revealed that he’d held a kernel of hope throughout his adulthood that a cozy spot in the booth of his childhood diner would be waiting for him when he retired. “Where can I find community now?” he asked. It was a good question, but he was frustrated that the answer didn’t include a couple of eggs over easy, bacon, and some greasy toast. Even though he’d watched his small town evolve over the years into a suburb, the eyes of his soul were wearing rose-colored glasses through which he could see the past even more clearly than he could see the Wendy’s that replaced the defunct diner.  

Author Marguerite Yourcenar called nostalgia “that melancholy residue of desire.” The melancholia of nostalgia is both an ache and a filter. The yearning for a curated version of the past tends to strain out all of the unpleasant bits. For example, the small town of Frank’s youth was minority-free, thanks to the aggressive redlining practices of local realtors, who were concerned about the way the nearby big city was starting to encroach on their idyllic hamlet. The beloved local priest was quietly transferred from his position at the church when there were whispers about the priest getting a little too handsy with a couple of the congregation’s boys. 

While it can be comforting to flip through a highlight reel of the nicest bits of your once upon a time, nostalgia has a shadow side to it. Nostalgia’s melancholia can become a hothouse environment that is a perfect breeding ground for fear and bitterness. Our unfiltered present can never compete with an idealized past. And nostalgia’s rose-colored glasses give us a vision of the future that is unable to see anything the dark certainty that what is to come will steal, kill, and destroy all that was once good. Nostalgia can become noxious.

Noxious nostalgia can reveal itself in a couple of different ways. It can drive some to activism: Frank has become a political zealot, fighting to return America—and his town—to the idyllic place he believed it was when he was a boy. He treks to political rallies and uses his computer’s keyboard like a warrior to attempt to evangelize his digital friends to his viewpoint. 

It can drive others toward isolation. I know a woman who has withdrawn, hermitlike, from society because she hates what it has become. Lisa spends her days watching oldies shows on basic cable, trying to relive the happy days of her youth. She’s let most of her friendships wither because she fears conflict about current events that may emerge in some of those conversations. She’s weary of this world and unapologetic about her choice to live in a self-imposed cocoon of nostalgia.  

Nostalgia suffocates our growth and stunts our hope.

Though Frank and Lisa couldn’t be more different than one another, their fear and frustration with the present have put them on the same dead-end road, traveling toward a past that never existed. And it is not just older people who are lured by noxious nostalgia. I’ve heard similar wistfulness from younger friends in more recent generations. If they are not recollecting the sunny parts of their own 1990s youth collecting Beanie Babies, learning the Macarena, or draping their frame in a pair of ginormous JNCO jeans, some are buying wholesale the notion that better days in our culture happened in the 1950s.  

It is one thing to sit around with old friends and laugh about the hip-hugging bell bottoms and blue mascara fashion popular in our youth (guilty on both counts) or reminisce about the bands and movies we loved back then. Our experiences shape us and have formed us into the people we are today. (Well, I’m not sure that blue mascara contributed much to my current life!) But nostalgia rooted in fear and anger flips the unvarnished instruction from the writer of Ecclesiastes on its head: “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this?” 

Pastor Bruce Hillman wrote, “Nostalgia is often a technique for dealing with grief; it is a mechanism of narration that seeks to re-story the past as a way of dealing with the present. Like a drug, it gives a powerful escape from the responsibilities and struggles of the present moment. But it hinders the development of resilience.” Nostalgia suffocates our growth and stunts our hope. Forgetting the former days isn’t the antidote to noxious nostalgia. 

God never called us to Make Yesterday Great Again. But he does call us to remember. 

The word “remember” is used in Scripture more than 150 times. When the Bible speaks about remembering, the kind of memory to which it most frequently refers is akin to muscle memory. When you jump on a bike after not riding for years, and your mind and body instantly recall how to balance and pedal as if you’d just done so yesterday, you’re tapping into the way in which we are invited to remember.

Remembering is a function of a relationship.

The active, present, and all-encompassing nature of remembering in the Bible is captured in the core realities that God remembers his covenant with his people and God expects his people to remember and do what God has commanded. Remembering is a function of a relationship. When we remember Jesus through wine and bread shared together at the table, we are invited to experience it as though we are sitting with him at the final meal he shared with his friends. The Bible doesn’t invite us to recall a set of data points about Jesus when we come to the communion table but to participate with him who is Immanuel, God with us here and now. 

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Psychiatrist Dr. Gordon Livingston called nostalgia an enemy of hope, and I believe that is why nostalgia is a barren imitation of the biblical call to remember. Nostalgia limits my view of my teen years to bell bottoms, blue mascara, and a lot of Led Zeppelin. Remembering gives a necessary context for my life as it intersects with God’s redemptive work in and around me. Nostalgia doesn’t have space for my teen drug and alcohol use, promiscuity, and suicidal ideation, and it shrink-wraps the power of God who rescued me during those dark years into a cheerful little package I can hold in my hand like a souvenir of my bad old good ol’ days. 

Remembering equips us to be fully present in our lives, able to draw on resources of God’s wisdom and strength, and able to make meaning out of our lived experience.

When I seek to remember, however, strength and gratitude infuse my present circumstances with hope. At sixty-three, I can’t summon every detail of those days from nearly half a century ago, but as I bring that time in my life to active remembrance, I experience the height, width, depth, and breadth of a love that welcomed me just as I was and welcomes me still. 

Genesis 19:26 offers us the image of Lot’s wife being transformed into a frozen pillar of salt after looking back at the destruction at Sodom and Gomorrah after God instructed them not to do that very thing. It was a command rooted in mercy, and God knew they’d never forget what they’d experienced in the towns. They didn’t need to glance over their shoulders to remember what they’d just been rescued from. Lot’s wife’s rearward gaze of curiosity, longing, or nostalgia is a profound picture of what the enemy of hope wants to steal from us.

Remembering equips us to be fully present in our lives, able to draw on resources of God’s wisdom and strength, and able to make meaning out of our lived experience. Remembering integrates us into a world where the Main Street diner may be long gone, but the experiences of our past, enlivened by living hope, are a rich part of who we are, right where we are, here and now. 

Michelle Van Loon
Michelle Van Loon is the author of seven books. Her most recent is Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma (Herald Press, 2022). She blogs at michellevanloon.com.

Cover image by Jon Tyson

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