Loss of the Past (Nostalgia) – Yellow
Posted February 14, 2010on:
‘Why did the bulrush?’ ‘Because he saw the cowslip’.
As a child, I loved this joke, with its image of a gallant bull, which I enjoyed picturing hastening through mud to rescue a clumsy cow, and perhaps ending up flat on his back there, too.
Hearing about cowslips used to be bound up with nostalgia for me, as in the 1970s and 1980s, my mother described a time just after the War, when cowslips were a common sight. Now this nostalgia is itself a thing of the past. The cowslip has made a comeback (pulled herself out of the mud perhaps?!) Though the ones we see tend to be the cross-bred kind, half primula, half cowslip, and brighter than the truly wild ones.
Nostalgia is a very intense emotion, a lot like homesickness – but a homesickness for the past. It’s an emotion that is full of contradictions – for instance, it’s an ache in the heart, yet we seem to rather enjoy it, and often do things to deliberately provoke it. It’s called up by old things, frequently, yet its pleasure is that it makes us feel younger, by taking us into our past. I have to admit that, in common with many people, I’m very prone to nostalgia, my favourite TV programme being ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’. And I can get nostalgic about things that happened eighteen months ago, let alone in the days of my youth and childhood.
When you feel nostalgic, remembered events take on a heightened significance, and even people and places you actively disliked at the time, are bathed in a golden glow in retrospect. All is forgiven – and we forget what it was actually like, back then.
It’s a very natural thing, to look back with fondness. We tend to remember only the good things. The past is a place where we feel secure, because it’s ‘done and dusted’. There is no element of uncertainty, because we know what happened next.
Ecclesiastes 7 verse 10 (Old Testament) says ‘Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.’ The writer isn’t saying that things aren’t getting worse, just stating that there is no point in hankering after a past that has gone for ever.
It’s a deceiving emotion, really, in that we don’t realize that our attachment to something can be…100% nostalgia.
I’m sure we could feel nostalgia for just about anything, so long as it belonged to a bygone age. As a child, I worshipped the idea of the past. I didn’t realise ‘The Olden Days’ was just a phrase, I thought it was a definite period of history! A noble yet difficult-to-live-in era, that ended with the outbreak of World War One. If the Post Office had phased out postcodes in the 1970s – instead of phasing them in, at that time – well, imagine how much regret would have been expressed at their passing. There would have been comments made like. ‘How brusque and abrupt-looking modern addresses look, without the lovely old postcodes.’
But I don’t want to be too cynical – it must be terrible never to feel this way. I’m thankful that there are things in my past to feel nostalgic about.
I think if we rid the human psyche of nostalgia, we would definitely miss it (although of course we couldn’t feel nostalgic about it).
‘Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’ – have you ever heard that joke? I must admit, it never makes me laugh (but then it’s one of those ‘cerebral’ kinds of jokes, not really a laugh-out-loud one.) When I first heard that joke, I began wondering whether it is true – are we more obsessed with the past than we used to be? I am fascinated by the relationship of previous generations to the generations that came before them.
For instance, until quite recently I didn’t appreciate that Bible characters were separated from each other by hundreds of years. In the Old Testament Book of Ruth, Naomi’s neighbours refer to ‘Rachel and Leah, who together built the house of Israel’. Or rather, I didn’t realise what this meant: that to Naomi, Rachel and Leah would have been just two names that she had to flesh out with her imagination – just as they are for us. Characters from the dim and distant past. She would have had no clue what they looked like, although living in Israel, she would have been able to picture the practical details of their lives, and perhaps would have heard local folklore about them and other Israelites of the past.
There’s been so much more to say about nostalgia than I realised when I started. I’ve appreciated, afresh, how amazing it is that we can look back and remember things that have happened to us. Painful memories have to be dealt with – but to have this faculty of recollection at all, is an amazing gift from God.
The human brain is still a mystery to mankind, and man’s memory even more so. As Psalm 139 says, ‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me’. And as another verse of that psalm says, ‘I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made’.