There is a fine line between nostalgia and the longing for lost innocence. The latter is healthy; the former is not. Nostalgia is an unhealthy depression, an adolescent sentimentality which leaves us clinging to the past so as to be unable to enter the present with verve and vitality. In the end, it is a mummification, an unnatural embalming of something which is dead. For a Christian there is the challenge to move beyond that, to let go, to not cling, to accept death, loss and corruption in order to be open to accept the new life and new spirit that the present brings.
Unfortunately, nostalgia comes upon us looking like the angel of light, with a power to touch our deepest parts in the same way as we are touched by real love and truth. But, in the final analysis, like masturbation, it merely deals with something which touches depth. Of itself, it is a turning away from reality in favor of fantasy. Not surprisingly, it carries with it the appropriate concomitant depression.
These words are harsh, but they need to stand as a preamble for what follows: We all need, occasionally, to make a recessive journey, to our origins, to our youth, to our innocence, to that place in time and in our hearts, before our sophistication, when we were truly young, simple and happy. Such a journey refocuses us and gives us a renewed sense of what is truest in us. But such a journey is not a sentimental voyage into the past in which we recall our youth, its simplicity and its innocence, and then bring appropriate lessons and guilts to bear upon the present. That would only lead to depression. The recessive journey, rather, is not so much a re-examination of our past as it is an examination of what is truest in us. In the deepest part of our hearts lie our real roots. At the end of that journey we find that our life has not been lost, blown, screwed up beyond hope or irrevocably wounded into melancholy by death, sin and loss. The journey to remember, to recall origins, is not sentimentality, it is a surgery, a cutting away of cancerous overlay to set the heart, in its primal and perennial vitality and innocence, free.
I made some such journeys lately. I did some remembering. Partly it was nostalgia; partly it was surgery. The recall of myself as a child is both humbling and humiliating; more the former. We were poor and many around an old wooden table in that immigrant district of rural Saskatchewan. On a farm too small we struggled, to learn a new language, to become educated, to do more than just make do, but, for years, we struggled just to survive. I am younger than the depression, but I can recall the winter of 1955. We were so poor then. We were always poor. My overriding memory of childhood is that of being hungry, not so much for food, but more for a world beyond that of economic and social poverty, for a world beyond a small isolated farm, for a life and an experience beyond a world in which there was no hot water on tap and in which there was not even the capability of speaking the language properly or dressing properly.
I felt cursed then by the sense that I was poor. And I was, in some ways, moving in my patched, hand-me-down clothes, too often smelling of farmyard and barnyard. The shame of poverty hits hardest in the teen years. To step back into that now can still bring flushes of humiliation. To truly recall it, however, brings a healthy humbling coupled with a strength and a sense of richness that nourishes like Elijah’s jug. We were rich in fact, all of us growing up in poverty on those immigrant farms. Our houses and hearts contained all that is important. Dirty, barefoot, speaking in our multiple accents, we were full of excitement. Our hearts were keen, clear as crystal, eager to learn and full of appreciation. There was enough love and innocence around.
My life has been blessed with various kinds of riches and successes since. Through travel, lecturing, teaching and friendships, I have been given the opportunity to experience in reality most of what I dreamed about when I was a runny nosed, but wide-eyed, child. But with the success and experience has come a crippling pseudo-sophistication, an unfreedom, a lack of innocence, a certain fatigue of the spirit, and a fear that can make a recessive journey to my origins an event of depressive nostalgia. The verve, the happiness, the innocence, why are they too often lacking?
Lately, I’ve had to take to dreaming again. It is time when that happens,to take a recessive journey, to go back to the farm, to recall one’s origins. In remembering there is a surgery. When we were little boys and girls our hearts were so eager to learn, our spirits were so hungry and welcoming. So much was gift.
Lord, let it all be gift again!