I usually don’t blog during vacation, but it’s my vacation and I can blog if I want, so here goes. This week my family and I are enjoying a week in Cooperstown, NY. My oldest son is playing in a big baseball tournament and we’re all enjoying the rolling countryside and baseball-centeredness of this charming area.
You can’t walk more than a block along the streets of Cooperstown without experiencing some sense of nostalgia. The town has a bustling main street lined with turn of the century storefronts and quaint restaurants. Within a long fly ball in any direction from the baseball hall of fame, I’ve seen dozens of Victorian homes fronted by handmade stone walls, painted garden fences, red-white-and-blue bunting and sidewalks poured before the days of the WPA. Of course, everything in this place orbits around that most nostalgic of American loves: baseball. The very air I’ve breathed the past few days seems to be laced with ether piped in from the Field of Dreams. Heck, the town even boasts a trolley car to carry families around the brick and memories.
I have mixed feelings about nostalgia.
I suppose nostalgia is a bit like medicinal opioid. In limited doses it can relieve the malaise brought on by a world that’s too connected, moves too fast, and seems headed nowhere in particular. Nostalgia feels good. It feels good to walk old streets, to stare at black and white renderings of big games, and to remember – even if those memories are like a stone wall that’s more cement than stone.
A problem with nostalgia is that it can be addictively numbing. Nostalgia can make us homesick for a family dinner we only experienced in a television show. It’s a kind of memory that files off the rough edges of a time when things were no better (or worse) than they are now. Nostalgia can transport us from our today problems to a yesterday that’s so far away that we can mistake people for ants, pain for joy, and old days for good old days. The siren call of sanitized sentiment steers our car into the Cracker Barrel parking lot, leads us to adorn our kitchen walls with Hobby Lobby kitsch, and convinces us that faux antique furnishings are just like the real thing – only better.
Nostalgia is hope aimed in the wrong direction. Rather than longing for better days and trusting in God’s grace and a bit of our own good effort to get us there, nostalgia is a rearview mirror sentiment that puts the best days behind us and lets us experience the pleasure that comes from things being right with the world without having to pay much more than the price of an admission ticket.
The alternative to nostalgia isn’t forgetfulness or cynicism or a big reality check, it’s temperance: that cardinal of virtues that lets everything have its place and no more. So let’s remember fondly, even as we recall the Photoshop filtered version of someone else’s past. But let us also recognize that the past is no place to live, that the present reality should not be judged according to a fantasy version of what used to be, and that God draws us forward, onward, and upward.