Nostalgia Gone Bad

Golden Age Delusion

Ecclesiastes 7:10

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”     For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

Images of the “Golden Age” produce a broad range of feel good nostalgia.  Way back then everything was so right.  Dinner was better.  Going to work was joyful.  Friday nights has all one could wish to find.  The air was cleaner.  No one had much care or worry.  Just to sit and recall all the familiar experiences bring back a comfortable time that was understood.  The longer we dwell on that blessed past the better the memories become.  Even the birds came and sang joyful melodies in our back yard.  Squirrels came to our windows and joined the joyful cacophony in merry dance and . . . oh, please!  Get over it, already!  That blessed past was no such thing, but our wishful memory will embellish every corridor of time until our past is molded into the perfect Shangri-La even Walt Disney never tried to create.

Why do we long for the “good old days,” when we know they were not really all that good?  Medical technology was primitive.  Career dreams faded just as quickly as they do now.  Hygiene was lacking the prim and proper roles of modern days, particularly the aroma of the past.  For many of those old memories war marred many recollections of what could have been, from World War 2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and now memories and trauma of two gulf wars.  Let’s face it, the only good thing about the days gone by is in the way we reconstruct the memories to make everything seem so much easier, nicer and predictably safe.

Bill Cosby portrayed it so well in the recollection of his father’s memories,

“If he asked his dad for a nickel, he had to hear his life story and how he ate dirt. He had to hear about how his dad walked to school 4 o’clock every morning with no shoes on, uphill, both ways, in 5 feet of snow and he was thankful.  He once killed a grizzly bear with his loose-leaf notebook.  But now, when his parents comes to visit their grandchildren they hand out money to the kids as much as he can.  Bill tries to enlighten the situation that these are not the same people he grew up with. These are old people who are trying to get into heaven now.”

Recalling the days gone by might sooth our soul, but usually that compulsion down memory lane is fueled by modern anxiety and disappointments.  We long for the older days because we understood them, although much of that has to with the fact that we understand them only because our modern lens clarify what we were doing after it was done.  Like watching a rerun on TV, we know what to expect and the intellectual ease figuring who done it (same guy as in the first time through).  For an example of how this pull into the past can entrance our society, next time you are in Cracker Barrel, peruse some of that “gold old time” candy, soap, etc.  Prepare yourself for how capitalism can take those old, cheap items and sell them at shocking levels of exploited profit.  And people will pay those inflated prices just for a piece of the old Nostalgia pie.

Confusion of these rapidly changing technologies compels our backwards dreams, before we had to learn the complicated steps of computer “convenience.”  Just when we figured out E-mail we discover twitter is the new rage.  Then Facebook is where it’s at.  Cell phones are great, but really . . . a flip phone?  Either get a smart phone or don’t bother us.  And even when we do catch up, modern technology marketing is upgraded quickly – every six months, in fact.  Those great Christmas gadgets don’t even make it through the year before they are dated, yesterday’s toys.

Modern culture drives us back into the past where things did not change so quickly and we understood how things worked.   It was true for day to day life, even with all the idealized exaggerations we place on those memories, and it is our passion to find better days in what we have already done.

The tragedy of nostalgia especially strikes the modern church.  As a generation ages it loses its ability to recreate itself in order to stay abreast of the mythical progress.  It becomes confusing when a new generation does not want to do it the way we used to do it, and consequently we find ourselves dated and out of touch.  The old fogies we used to trivialize are now shockingly . . . us!

What to do?  Acknowledge that the old days are past, roll over and die?  Learn the complicated new ways and get with it?  Or dig in and demand a return to that noble past which we understood, when we were in control.  We were in charge then and we are not ready to give that up just yet.

But what are we fighting?  Is it really the younger, ignorant generation who does not know real life?  Are the new ideas really the scourge of our happiness?  Can we face up to the fact that we too rebelled against an age gone by and could not stand to wait any longer for them to get out of the way?  They just didn’t dig what we were doing!  Or is it reality itself we find ourselves battling?  And what daunting terror that truly is before us.

How readily available are those passageways to a safer past?  And is it ever a good idea to take them too serious?  Solomon’s wisdom has something for us,

“Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?”     For it is not wise to ask such questions.’”        Ecclesiastes 7:10

Solomon’s counsel echoes down the hallways of experienced life with firm caution.    Ecclesiastes is the book about watching and learning things.  People make wise decisions and they make the most foolish of decision.  Solomon is there on the scene like an NFL ref ready to throw the flag for fouls or signaling for an instant replay to think that over.

So what are the pitfalls of nostalgia when it betrays our better interests?

1) Exaggerations . . . and they get bigger and bigger as the years go by.  A golfer can make an incredible 8 foot putt for a big win.  Give it a few weeks and that putt moves out to 12 feet.  In a few months it will be 12 “yards,” not 12 feet.  In the waning years of life that putt required a hefty driver to accomplish its feat.

Churches as well as any group operate much the same way.  Each year that past golden age just grows and grows.  The old timers harp on “the day” when everything was so perfect as though the Apostle Paul himself had ordained the days.

Jack Warner shares an experience in his church in which one of the members was having a rather grumpy, grumbly day.  Just five minutes before the worship service was to begin an old curmudgeon began his rant of how the church operated so much more effectively in those days gone by.  The final rant left Jack rather perplexed … everything was so much better when he had over 700 here on Sunday mornings.  Uhm, . . . the sanctuary only seats 300, hip-to-hip.  Where exactly did the other 400 people sit?  Reality set in that that conversation had left the realm of the rational boundaries of reality.  Jack proceeded with the worship service in spite of the exaggerated “reality optional” argument still awaiting his stumbling waste of time.

Lucas Morgan shares his story about the chapel in a church he was serving ideally served smaller formalities as well as an early worship service.  The long-time members of “that service” would continually extoll the praises of those glory days when 100 people showed up for every 8:30am service.  And … as they relish the memory … the Fire Marshall made them remove the extra chairs they had to set up.  But the sobering reality is that this small chapel could only seat 70 people at a too crowded peak.  They could never sustain a crowd of even that much.  So, just exactly who were these faithful 100+ people?  Circus clowns who made a living by exiting a small compact circus car?

Shuffling back to reality, those numbers only existed in the minds of desperate people trying to keep dying memories of their prime season alive for boasting of their overlooked superior abilities.  Sadly, it was all just a ruse.  Nothing of the sort of these exaggerated memories made any sense although it fed their insecure sense of making their mark in the world.

Every society honors its live conformists, and its dead troublemakers.    ~Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960

2) What have you done lately??  Those glory days gone past provide such a handy excuse to step out of the reality of present obligations.  The firmer they hold on to the past, the less obligation they feel to the present.  And when church people get desperate their religion can become rather dangerous.

With care and a playful heart, try inserting notion that the past is no longer a relevant power in today’s efforts to proceed forward as a viable church with new a new vision, which is still quipping the same church that extended into that past.  Such expressions inserted into conversation (with a nonthreatening intent) can soften and even disable some of those lobs of the braking past.  Remind the hearers what was,

  • “Back then”
  • “The way it used to be”
  • “What we did in the 80’s … 90’s”

Maybe a chorus or two of Barbara Streisand’s, “Mem’ries” or Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days” will keep those halting notions in the past where they belong.  But you must have a trusting and light-hearted relationship for such comments to hold a positive effect defusing the empty morass of a day gone by.

Might I pose a principle for thought and discussion?  As long as people are focused on that elusive past they step out of the present.  In fact this maxim runs in direct correlation to present idleness.  They do not have to participate in what the church is doing today because they have put in their time already, and no matter what you may say, that time was superior to anything you might do today.  They have their excuse to be functionally retired from ministry and discipleship; honorably discharged from active duty in God’s Kingdom.

Most people are more comfortable with old problems than with new solutions.

3) Distracts faith from its real goal, Jesus Christ.  They are so stuck on “their” glorious past that the commission of our Lord no longer matters to them.  Who cares about “what have you done lately,” let’s stay focused on this fantasy we have constructed.

Churches face dire challenges and risk when they allow themselves to be stuck in “yesterday’s” glory or vision.  George Bullard points out (Elder Seminar, Sun City Christian Church, AZ, February 2013) that the risk involves the failure to adapt a new vision when the old vision runs out of steam.  This happens in 24 – 27 years after a new vision has been adapted (roughly one generation).  Human nature and group systems simply cannot handle a vision beyond that duration.  Either the church will implement a new vision, purpose and direction or risk lumbering into aged maturity.  A church may try to “tweak” their previous vision, but they only amount to mere band aides, masking a much deeper problem.  Failure to live the new vision will lead to a slow death.  As Jesus taught, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.  And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:21-22).

The past was safe and predictable, but especially it was familiar.  Whether or not it was better or more practical is inconsequential.  They understood their select past and it did not confuse them.  As for any complications in those memories, that’s where the creative resources of our mind can smooth over and blur fiction with reality.  A little imagination can restore everything to the quaint Norman Rockwell picture they desperately want to believe.

4) Fixation, Regression and the Cingulate Cortex

Worst psychological estate:   STUCK

The point at which you need to seek help, since your capacity to develop and grow and … be alive has been compromised.  But the situation can become serious, even psychologically dangerous.  Neuropsychologists define this as, “Cingulate Cortex Dysfunction.”

Cingulate Gyrus (Cortex) Dysfunction

— becomes part of the diagnostic pattern seen as personality disorder.  We all make mistakes; it’s part of being human. However, when the cingulate gyrus malfunctions we lose our cognitive flexibility.

  • Instead of learning from our human imperfections, those with cingulate problems are more likely to get “stuck,” dwelling on the lingering embarrassments and awkward negative feelings.
  • To compensate these insecure feelings, an individual with an overactive cingulate gyrus resembles an emotional level similar to a two-year old child, saying NO without thinking, frequently without even listening to the question.

Some of that refusal to acknowledge a newer better way of operation just might be signaling something far more serious.  The issue is especially evident in an aging individual or community.  Too much resistance to every new and different idea could be opening oneself to serious psychological issues, not to confuse a crotchety attitude with a faulty mind.

Singulate Cortex

5) Ego Worship.  One stuck in the old days, refusing to budge toward anything else may well find themselves guilty of ego adulation.  The very resistance to new experiences leaves one with nothing else to attach focus except themselves.  They refuse any new things outside their closed sphere, hiding their fear of stepping outside of themselves.  They become their whole universe, virtually guilty of becoming their own idol.  Such self-focus may eventually lead to an implosion upon themselves.

“When science finally locates the center of the universe,

some people will be surprised to learn they’re not it.”

Bernard Bailey

6) Illusion.  It’s all a mere illusion they have made for themselves, creating this phony world to contain all their lofty assumptions of themselves in that superimposed world.  When reality finally arrives what pain to discover that none of this is real.  It’s only a daydream, reflecting a time that once was but is no more. And reality will eventually arrive as much as they fear it, for those illusions will wear down.  It’s just a matter of time.

When Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt they rejoiced and celebrated their liberation . . . “until” they stymied themselves in the wilderness.  Then their memories began to spin that so-called awful pat in Egypt.  Maybe it was not quite as they assume it was.  And when the going got rough they did what they knew best, whined and grumbled.

“The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Exodus 16:3

“The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.”                   Numbers 11:4-5

Despite all their efforts to re-write their history, Moses knows the reality.  What amazing restraint on his part.  A younger man would have been given to pure cynicism, “Really?  You wanna go back to Egypt??”  The reality is not as their indignant imaginations have begun to spin the facts.  When Moses meets God at the burning bush, God’s assessment is different,

“The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.”                                            Exodus 3:7

Good times back in Egypt only existed in their idealized memories.  It may have been a pleasant fantasy, but it was not real.

7) Boring.  Forfeiting adventure for the sake of their bound memories leaves them drab and stale.  Being stuck in the same old, same old.  How life is wasted on such people who have failed to navigate the changing tides and experiences of life.  For these people it is true that at their funeral the clergy needs to clarify that although the death certificate reads but a few days ago, their functional death occurred years, even decades previous.  It was merely the shell of their body that continued to move about.

Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.

8) Tedious to Others.  Seriously, how long do you think your friends will put up with the same old “exaggerating” stories?  A second and third telling of a grand event may be tolerated, but even the best counselor cannot endure the fourth, fifth and beyond telling.  Begin to notice that people are moving away from you when you open your mouth to tell “that” story again.  And worse, they begin to realize that those details keep growing.  You try to impress them with the story that has become the epitome of your life, but when you realize the story is not getting the same response it once did . . . you figure it needs some seasoning and so you take liberty to spice up the details.  A plan meant to create interest has now exposed everything as a suspected charade.  Pity and avoidance are the next experiences and you are left with your disrespected stories of your disrespected life.

9) Mental Atrophy.  Keeping your brain in perpetual re-run mode prohibits any sort of true intellectual stimulation.   Just like a muscle loosing ability so does the brain become lazy and week.  Instead of a well-defined, streamlined wit, the conversations become rather limp and puny.

Beyond poor cognitive ability, one even runs the risk of emotional harm, dropping into a loop of daily melodrama seldom touching upon reality.  Delusion becomes the code of life.  Think of that mental failure in terms of “cognitive toxins” that can harm your brain.

10) Ego Integrity     vs.     Ego Despair

A desperate hold on to that superimposed past will likely set us up to fail Eric Erickson’s final stage of life, of Ego satisfaction; Ego Integrity vs. Ego Despair.

The hope of relaxed contentment in those post-career, retirement years have been sabotaged by your own pursuit of an aloof past that amounted to no more than a mist easily and readily dissipated by the  direct sunlight of reality.

Erik Erikson describes the life having fallen short of their dreams, failing to make their mark (key contribution), leaving them feeling unproductive, guilt over a dull life, unfulfilled – leading them to dissatisfaction, despair, depression and hopelessness.   Truly a pitiful portrait suffered by an over-influenced quest for nostalgia.  Regrets actually haunt their later years.

 “He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.”                                                               — Plato


Strategies & Responses

Those memories can be assuring of the possibilities of success and prevailing over the challenges impeding our way.  However, sometimes they memories take on their own life and they themselves become the inhibiting forces in need of overcoming.  But this battle is never to be waged with swords and armaments.  The fight is ideological; propaganda vs. propaganda.

However, you can fight a cleaner war which will be won only through respectable valleys, worthy of eventual appreciation by all sides, but especially by the by-standers observing the display.  What might they observe worthy of their heart and desire?  Respectability and reality are your most effective weapons against the powers of stagnation and discouragement.

It’s obvious to the outsiders that the Emperor is not really wearing any new clothes, he’s just parading about in his underwear.  However, those locked into the system are too afraid to acknowledge what is obvious to others.  They acknowledge the glorious [non-existent] clothing in order to be a part of the group.  In order to flee this social prison requires much courage and fortitude.  Be ready to encourage and grant safe harbor to all exiles from that phantom paradigm.  Give them a bigger “yes” (AKA “reality”) to the stagnated yesterday crying “no” to the present and future.

Successfully escaping the confines of a deluded paradigm requires outside help.  Those ready to flee must be allowed to save face.  They won’t bolt if they must endure demeaning ridicule from the other side as well as offended hostility from the inside.  Give them a good place to land and let them know that place is always available.  They must have a reason to find something better than the empty illusion they have been forced to endure.

How can you instill faith and courage into the camp of the laggards?  Good preaching, vision casting and fellowship are your weapons against such murky darkness.  Keep the standard high and paint the picture that they would naturally desire.  When the church fulfills its calling it has an irresistible persuasion.  People want a real and fulfilling experience, with joy and the excitement of adventure.  The greater the clarity the greater the pull, which weakens detrimental alliances.  If the empty past is all they have, that will quickly lose its adhesion.  It’s like eating a steady diet of sugary candy, it’s exciting at first, but eventually it leaves them with the sugar “downer” effect.  It cannot sustain any nurturing effect.  The human soul needs more than the dabbling effects of “what used to be.”

If the group entrenched in “Yesterday” is overly charged then be careful.  In a church setting these are the people who are becoming overly religious.  Eventually their religious pretense may become hostile and detrimental to all outsiders failing to recognize their higher status in the church which is of a better grade than those “new people.”  These kinds of church people are dangerous.  Their righteousness vaunts them above the status quo.  Failure to acknowledge their superior status will trigger their hostility.


Detoxifying Nostalgia

Be very clear in your own mind about your ultimate objectives,

  1. Prove yourself correct?
  2. Prove them wrong and feeble?
  3. Neutralize the draining powers of Nostalgia?

At their inception, those memories are/were good and reflect a wholesome time in your church or organization.  Do not trash your own history.  Iconoclasts through the centuries have been busy seeking to erase all images that would grind us to a halt in the mire of looking back.

Besides, those recollections will continue to be retold regardless of the efforts to send them to Valhalla.  As a minister you must deal with them all the way to the last eulogy.  Learn to befriend those memories, to at least be civil with what they mean to the beholders.

Have a heart, those memories may be all they have left, as pitiful as that may seem.  You do not need to destroy the mist, just neutralize it, defusing its power.  Attacking it is bad strategy.  Now they have a reason to rally their defenses, new fuel to escalate the cause.  Just when they were nearly done, you have unwittingly rallied their energies, along with the new alliance of sympathizing romantics.  Attacking an enemy nearly expired gives it new life.  Don’t let them know they are worth the attention.  Let them be fading phantoms in the throes of marching time.  The memories can be treasured, but only when they stay on the shelf and not meddling in the reality of today.



   *****     *****

“The Way We Were”

Barbara Streisand


Light the corners of my mind

Misty water-colored memories

Of the way we were

Scattered pictures,

Of the smiles we left behind

Smiles we gave to one another

For the way we were

Can it be that it was all so simple then?

Or has time re-written every line?

If we had the chance to do it all again

Tell me, would we? Could we?

Mem’ries, may be beautiful and yet

What’s too painful to remember

We simply choose to forget

So it’s the laughter

We will remember

Whenever we remember…

The way we were…

The way we were…



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *