AS someone once said: Nostalgia is not what it used to be. In fact, it never was.
That insidious emotion, nostalgia, seems to be as much a part of the modern world as new technology.
The more rapidly we are propelled into an uncertain future, the more we seem to yearn for life in the past lane; for the imagined safe world of yesterday.
We want to believe that yesterday was simpler and more secure — even though we should know that life has always been on a razor’s edge.
Charles Leadbeater, in his book Up the Down Escalator, wrote of booming housing estates in the United States where everything is freshly minted to look old.
“From films to music, cars to architecture, we are using new technology to return us to the past, to deliver better versions of old experiences,” he wrote.
Leadbeater said the globalisation and immersion in computerised and virtual worlds had made us nostalgic for a time when we imagined we lived in real communities, with a sense of shared social and moral commitment.
He said we could mix and match from the al a carte menu of memories. But in the end, we were deceiving and paralysing ourselves.
Nostalgia was first recognised — as an affliction or mania — in the 17th century. Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer documented cases of war-weary soldiers who hallucinated about the homelands they had left behind.
Centuries later, wallowing in the past is no longer generally viewed as an affliction. Instead, it is a somewhat romantic notion.
Nostalgia in reality is a cheap emotion, or as Leadbeater puts it, “a lazy wallow in a warm bath of false history”.
In another century, Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every old man complains of the growing depravity of the world, of the petulance and insolence of the rising generation. He recounts the decency and regularity of former times, and celebrates the discipline and sobriety of the age in which his youth was passed; a happy age which is now no more to be expected, since confusion has broken in upon the world, and thrown down all the boundaries of civility and reverence.”
We do not do much better with our visions of the future.
Wonder and worry about life seem to mix loosely in all of us. We clearly need more wonder and less worry.
As Christian author C.S. Lewis puts it, we are called to attend to “eternity itself, and to that point of time which we call the present”.
German theologian Deitrich Bonheoffer, who railed against the Nazis and was executed, complained about the “sentimentality” of religions.
He said churches often dealt too much with past and future visions and not enough with today’s realities.
“Christianity meets humans at the centre of their lives, both in their joys and sufferings,” he said.
“God must be recognised at the centre of life, not when we are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognised in life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in all our activities, and not only in sin.”