There is an inconvenient and frustrating passage in the book of Ecclesiastes where the teacher offers this advice to his young students: “Say not, why were the former days better than these? For it is not from wisdom that you ask this" (Eccl 7:10). Essentially, the sage is warning his students about the folly of nostalgia. The point is that nostalgia is a type of lie, the sort of thing that is opposed to wisdom because wisdom is concerned with truth. On the other hand, folly is the sort of thing that costumes itself as truth but is actually destructive. In biblical wisdom literature, folly is dangerous for both the individual and the community. So the sage’s warning to his students here is not a passing bit of fortune cookie advice. It is an observation alarming them of the dangers of folly and its pernicious ability to mask itself as a good.
We like nostalgia because it is a coping mechanism from change and alienation. We look back on past times—times we have lived through and survived—and we feel the power of having come through them. But nostalgia also has a sense of longing to it, a return to those times where we (apparently) had more control over our lives, where things were "simpler" and “better.” But this is the lie. The former days weren't better than these. Why? Because from the perspective of the wisdom literature of the Bible, the wise person lives continually under God's rule and reign. Today is a gift not to be neglected. That means each day is a blessing and each day an opportunity to apply wisdom. The wise person is the one who lives continually like a tree planted by a river where its roots drink up the sometimes turbulent and sometimes trundling waters that pass it by.
The longing to return to better times is a lie. The Bible often demonstrates this in various passages. In Genesis 2, geographical references are given that seek to orient the reader to the Garden of Eden's location. But the references are all wrong. The rivers don't match actual geography and are impossibly mismapped. The Tigris is said to flow east, but it has always flowed west. The point for readers is that the answer to the question "Where is Eden?" is: “Nowhere. It's gone. You can't go back there. Only God can bring people back to Eden.” For another example, take the Israelites exodus from Egypt. Along the way, they are hit with a burst of nostalgia for their oppressive enslavement back in Egypt. The folly of nostalgia so skewed their perspective that they actually wanted to go back to Egypt.
Nostalgia is often a technique for dealing with grief; it is a mechanism of narration that seeks to re-story the past as a way of dealing with the present. Like a drug, it gives a powerful escape from the responsibilities and struggles of the present moment. But it hinders the development of resilience. Ironically perhaps, given enough time, even the struggles of today can become tomorrow's nostalgic flights of fantasy. And that should be a warning to us that neither the former days, nor these days are truly better or worse. Each day brings its own troubles. Instead, the Christian's wisdom is that each day is a day lived in the presence and love of God through Jesus Christ.
Living through the pandemic has spurned a nostalgia-revival. We crouch this nostalgia as a longing for "normal" when life seemed easier, and we didn't have to deal with masks, social distancing, Zoom meetings, and shutdowns. Now, certainly, we can long for better days. But there is something dangerous about longing for better days to be just like the old ones. That’s nostalgia’s warm hand of folly creeping its way into our daily lives. Subtly, it tells us that these days—the todays—are something to be survived, to pass-through, a storm to endure.
But we forget it was in a storm that Job heard from God. It was in thunder and lightning that Israel saw God on the mountain. It was in a storm that the disciples saw the Lord upon the water. And it was in a storm of darkness that the Savior hung on the cross. Storms are not crises to run-through but opportunities to see the favor and grace of God in all circumstances. Nostalgia is a looter who impoverishes us of the truth that God is in our midst right now. Nostalgia is a thief that seeks to rob the saints of the opportunity to see and hear from God and creativity.
And creativity is the point. Wisdom is creative: "By wisdom, the Lord laid the earth's foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place" (Prov 3:19). It was wisdom that created sunsets, the scent of flowers, the magic of music, and the duck-billed platypus. Wisdom is creative. And we need to be creative in these times too. Creativity is the way that we work positively through change. Since change is inevitable, creativity gives some control to change by making the process of adaptation one of artistry instead of drudgery. Creative-changers look to the future and make use of what they have; nostalgic-romantics complain about how things are today and wish they were like they used to be.
Strive for wise living with your families, workplaces, and churches as you fight against the folly of nostalgia. After all, rejoice in the reality that the Lord reigns and the promises of God are ours. Wisdom says, "forget the former days; today is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Ps 118:24). Be glad in it. Can you be glad today? Can you be glad even though things aren’t normal? Can you find the creative opportunities to exercise wisdom, making today better for yourself and your neighbors? God's word says you can if you stop seeing the "former days" as a golden age to revive and instead take inspiration from your Father's example: "He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making all things new" (Rev 21:5). That's the way of wisdom; that's how the Church will thrive in the shifting sands of time. Today is a new day; let the past be the past.