Nostalgia is a conundrum. On one hand, it’s a wonderfully powerful source of joy as you reflect back on happy memories, simpler times, and meaningful experiences. On the other hand, it also brings about a sense of sadness as you realize you will never relive those days and experiences. Nostalgia has been the word on my mind over the last week or so, as I have had several happenings trigger trips down memory lane.
A week ago we had our Senior Night dinner for the graduating seniors in youth group. This is always a bittersweet evening as we say thank you and goodbye to a handful of teens that have been part of our little community over the last four years. We celebrate them by watching a slideshow of pictures and speaking about them each individually, acknowledging the significant impact they have made. As I look through those pictures I am instantly taken back to the days they were taken – the retreats, the Sunday nights in the church basement, the random outings to Steak ‘n’ Shake. Although I’ve now been through several of these Senior Nights I always have the same naive thought when new freshmen come in – they’re never going to leave! I live in blissful ignorance up until we say goodbye to the seniors, and even then I don’t fully believe it until the first night they’re not there. I always wish I was more intentional about appreciating these seniors while they’re in our group.
I also had a wave of nostalgia this week as Time Hop on Facebook reminded me that a year ago I was roaming the streets of London on a trip through the YMCA. Each picture immediately took me back, not just to those specific memories, but also to where I was in life at that time. Prior to this trip I was in a job I no longer found fulfilling or satisfying. I was questioning whether or not I even wanted to stay within the YMCA. Part of the problem was that I didn’t have much of a clue as to what I even wanted to do. While on this trip I met some of the most passionate, devoted, and thoughtful people I know. I had many conversations with my cohort of travellers that week that helped me better understand what it was I wanted to do – work with teens.
These genuine conversations on the train, in random London pubs, and sitting in the hotel lobby pushed me to approach things a little differently. Instead of feeling down about my situation I was now filled with a sense of purpose and hope knowing that I had these people in my corner. What makes these Time Hop reminders all the more meaningful? The fact that I saw many of them while sitting at my desk…as a Youth and Teen director.
The bow on top of this nostalgia fueled week was a weekend trip to my old college town – good ol’ Kirksville, Missouri. I made the trek with some friends, many of which I met at Truman. I had been back to Kirksville a handful of times since graduating but there was something different about this particular trip. The fact that I have now been out of college longer than I was in college (*shudder*) played a big part in that. But I also think it’s about what those four years at Truman represent. That was a unique and vastly different time in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but life was so much more carefree in those days. Sure, there was pressure to succeed and stress to figure life out, but in such minor ways. I didn’t realize how much the simplest of things brought me the most pure joy.
One of the downsides of nostalgia is the yearning to return to that moment in time and to relive those experiences. I was surrounded with friends I had made it in this very town, so we naturally swapped our favorite Truman-centric stories. How great was it that we were once able to meet up on a whim? Now we had to plan for months in advance just a simple weekend trip. We joked about wanting to live in Kirksville again. There may have been a tinge of sincerity in those comments for some of us.
As I drove through the streets of Kirksville I was hit with a tidal wave of emotions. And it was the most random places that elicited these strong emotions. We drove by Aldi and I realized that’s the store where I first learned how to grocery shop for myself. We stopped for slushies at Sonic, the same place we used to go after playing softball. I visited the local YMCA where I worked, not knowing how much a simple summer job would change the trajectory of my career. I smiled as we roamed around campus and I reminisced on the simple joy of waving at friends as you passed by. Driving through Thousand Hills State Park made me think of the number of times I made the same corny joke to whoever was in the car (it’s Thousand and One Hills when I’m there). I was sad when I discovered the local diner, Rosie’s, was closed on Sundays, that our favorite bar Dukum was temporarily shut down, and that La Pachanga had moved from it’s tiny, dingy little building to a bigger, more spacious location in a strip mall. Heck, even Walmart elicited an emotional reaction as I reflected on all the times I made a random trip there, confident I’d find exactly what I’d needed (I never did).
I didn’t understand how much each little place in this middle-of-nowhere town truly meant to me. But as I mentioned earlier, it was more what these places represent. That’s why the Taco Bell in Kirksville means more to me than any other Taco Bell. It’s because it represents the friendships built through late night runs to get cheesy gordita crunches. I hated studying but I enjoyed finding my old study spot in the library. That spot didn’t remind of me hours spent studying, but rather people watching on the quad as fellow students passed by.
Nostalgia is hard because you long to relive those moments. I wish I could time travel to prop myself right back in the middle of campus, walking to the Newman Center without a care in the world other than who I would be getting dinner with that night and where we’d be going. It can also be difficult as you grapple with the fact that things have changed. I wish I could live as carefree as I was in college. I thought of all the people I haven’t seen and have failed to stay in touch with over the years. It used to be so simple to send somebody a text asking them to hangout and then be with them within five minutes. Not only do I feel sadness because of how much I miss the people and places of the past, but I also feel guilty that I’ve allowed things to change so much.
Nostalgia also serves as a powerful barometer from which to measure how much you’ve grown, and in some ways, how you’ve remained true to yourself. Walking by classrooms made me think of the times I stressed about my future, questioning where I would end up. Needless to say, I’m glad I can reflect back on that with the knowledge that I’m gainfully employed in a job I love. We were graced with a visit from the Newman Center director, Chris, while we were eating lunch in the park. I instinctively thought of how much I’ve grown in my faith and all the wonderful people I’ve met because of the foundation the Newman Center built for me. If I hadn’t been involved at the Newman Center, who’s to say I would be involved in my faith as much as I am now?
But as I also alluded to, reflecting back on the good ol’ days also reminds you of how you’re remained the same person. My love for breakfast is as strong now as it was then. I still seek solitude through nature hikes, just like I did when I wandered the trails of Thousand Hills. I still feel immeasurable joy from being surrounded by a community of friends. I’m happy to say that I’m still goofy, weird, and Star Wars obsessed.
Nostalgia is tricky. If you lean too far into the desire to relive old memories you get stuck in the past. You instinctively look at how your life is worse than it was before. If only I could go back to when things were easier. Dwelling on the past too much can be harmful. If we live in the past we fail to see the beauty of life right in front of us. I had a pretty cool reminder of that this week through the birth of my second niece, Norah. If I really time travelled into the past I’d miss out on the joy of seeing this beautiful little girl grow up and the memories that are yet to come.
Earlier this week I was handing out popsicles to the campers for their afternoon snack. I’ll be honest, I am so ready to summer camp to be over. It’s exhausting, stressful, and seemingly never-ending. But as I was handing out popsicles, I took note of the wide smiles and eager faces. A few months ago I didn’t know any of these campers and now I was responsible for bringing a bit of small happiness into their lives. This was one of those moments I knew I’d look back on a few months from now when it’s cold and snowing outside and think to myself, “Man, I’d love to go back to camp right now.”
I had a moment of preemptive nostalgia.
This thought hit me like a ton of bricks. In that moment I knew that I need to take more time to appreciate what’s happening here and now. While this weekend has spurred a lot of happy memories, I know that continuing to dwell on them will cause me to miss out on so many incredible experiences happening right in front me. Instead of getting stuck in the past I can instead use those memories as sources of hope, reminders that joy can always be found in the simplest of things.
I was taking a memory-filled stroll through the Newman Center when I wound up in the office. I was immediately drawn to a sign on the ground, with just one word – Memories. I couldn’t help but think this was a little God nod. I had spent so much time over the last week recollecting memories and experiences, reflecting on how I’ve grown and changed, and appreciating all of the amazing people I’ve met over the years. I also couldn’t help but notice the significance that the sign was otherwise empty. This, to me, signifies that our futures are a blank slate, ready for new memories to be made.