Have you noticed that when I miss a week of writing to you….(in case you didn’t realize it yet, I didn’t send “From the Rev” last Wednesday)…the next Wednesday I tend to drone on and on. I feel it coming today.
I’ve been a bit nostalgic recently. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the ending of one year and a new year beginning. Maybe I’m just getting old. Probably both. “Nostalgia” is defined as “a bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.”
Perhaps you already knew this, but I just read the other day that Encyclopedia Brittanica died in 2012. It was in an article talking about the “good old days” old technology, the printed encyclopedia, which at one time represented the penultimate way to organize knowledge. Until its demise the Encyclopedia Brittanica was the oldest continually print edition encyclopedia in the world. Its volumes graced the bookshelves of scholars, school children and libraries for 244 years.
When I was growing up, my family’s encyclopedia was The World Book. It is still being published, all 22 volumes, 14,000-plus pages, for $949. I have wonderful memories of those encyclopedia’s in my childhood home. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents thought they were important enough to buy the whole set for my sisters and me. So if we needed to write a school report on Africa or human sight or wondered what the smallest country in the world was or just wanted to lose ourselves on a rainy afternoon in Volume “W” (warthogs, weather, Washington D.C.), the book was there, waiting to be opened and explored.
This is the point where you might expect me to start writing nostalgically about the death of the Encyclopedia Britannica and launch into a speech about “the good old days.” Then I would decry how cold the internet is, how a Kindle or an IPad can’t compare to the heft of a volume of World Book. And then we could sing together “Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end….”
But the mistake of nostalgia is that we have this human tendency to remember and worship the past as the “good days” as compared to the supposed “bad days” of now. Understand, nostalgia is not always bad. When I write about my Father, as I did a few weeks ago, I re-visit him through the wonderful gift of human memory even though he is no longer alive. I take a step into my past, and I’m comforted by those memories. That is good nostalgia.
But these days I hear so much bad nostalgia: lamenting about what we’ve lost or how we got lost and how we must return to the past. I hear politicians speak about returning America to “what it was,” to its “greatness”…as if to turn the nation back is as easy as making a syrupy speech. I do sympathize with the nostalgic among us. We live in a time of radical cultural and technological change which can feel as if we are being thrown much too fast into the future. What is not changing these days? Not much!
Bad nostalgia commits one unavoidable sin. The past remembered is really not true…not objectively. It’s a past we remember selectively, sometimes narrowly, often sugar-coated, certainly romantic. The “bad stuff” inevitably gets edited out. Author John Steinbeck wrote:
Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change…
Bad nostalgia doesn’t allow the room to remember times of great change when everything shifted for the better: Yesterday, polio…today a vaccine; Yesterday intolerance of “the other” for their religion, skin color, or sexual orientation…today, a more civil nation; today, cancer…tomorrow (perhaps) a medical breakthrough. But for this to happen we can’t get stuck in a past that never really existed, nor fear a future yet to be born.
Life is finally change. Yes, we can sweetly remember the past. Yes, we can be grateful for it. Yes, we can learn from it. But finally, we can never, ever go back.
So farewell Encyclopedia Brittanica. You did a great job but you had to die to make way for the awesome information wave that is transforming our world in ways we could never have dreamed.
As a person of faith I finally rely on the advice of the psalmist: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Yes, those were the days, my friends. Yes, these are the days, my friends. But imagine what is yet to come!
You are loved,