We sometimes experience vivid feelings of nostalgia, of longing for the past. In these moments, we leave the present and go somewhere better. These moments come. Then go. And once again, we find ourselves in the present.
These experiences create an overwhelming sense of longing for the past. The past always seems better than the present. But that is not quite right. Longing for the past really means desiring what the past represents—seemingly better days. And yet while the past may have provided better moments, it was never the best.
The past like the present can never be the best. Things move from order to disorder—from ideal to less ideal. We may be happy when we meet our spouse then sad when we lose our spouse. The joy of the past cannot sustain us because it is momentary and changing.
The idealized past provides us with moments, memories of better times. We taste them, but they can never satisfy. They cannot satisfy because when we remember them, we have to realize they were not the best times.
If they were the best, they would last longer than a short time. But they do not. So they cannot be the best because lasting happiness is better than temporary happiness.
Nothing can be best when that thing only lasts for a moment and is gone.
Happiness comes to us like this. It descends upon us for a moment. Then ascends back to the heavens. Joy comes and goes. Soon boredom, despair, or suffering replaces it. We face the reality that bodies decay into pained existence. And not just our bodies. Friends and family will pass away.
At all moments, entropy enslaves us with its brutal decree: “All must decay.”
Everything falls apart. The centre has never held.
Yet we still long for something more
Yet we do experience real longings, an experience of elation that transcends the decay of experience. Somehow the moments of joy or happiness that we experience in the past create in us longings that stretch beyond the corroded present into the past.
But not the past.
The past never had the quality that we ascribe to it when we feel nostalgic. Most us know that we rarely remember the whole past. In the past, as it is now, the good moments punctuate the long the periods of tedium. These longings cannot then be truly satisfied in the past simply because the past provides momentary joy, not the lasting joy that we desire.
The desire for the past then must signify something else.
And it does. It signifies the end.
But not just any end but an end that comes to us and stays with us. The end of history promises something that no other moment of history can provide: sustainability, constancy, eternality.
When the present runs up to the end: it stops. At the end, the past no longer will have the same character that it now possesses. The past will be stable, unchanging. The weal (or the woe) of the end of all things will stay with us.
Better days stay at the end.
This quality of permanence gives the future the capacity for being the best, for being better. Something that changes cannot be the best. That changing thing could provide happiness for a moment, then sadness for a year. Unchanging permanence lies at the heart of human longing.
We long for heaven
Nostalgia, that feeling of longing, that short time in which we move outside of the self and into something else, brings us to heaven. It teaches us to desire a better country. It tells us that the past provides a foretaste of what we desire: permanent joy.
The human brain has this capacity not merely to survive this life but to embed a longing for the end of all things. We have purpose, telos.
Some have ruinously decried such experiences as daydreams. Doing so, they cripple their imaginations and sate themselves on poison and not bread. Worse, they peddle their poisonous opinions to others in the form of confident command.
But the nostalgic daydream, when not vitiated by vainglorious imagination, can point us to an idealized past and through the past, up to heaven; it can bring us into a new world that teaches us to live well in this world—preparing us to long for the right things in this life.
All actions derive from desire. The denial of nostalgic experience, of virtuous
All these longings direct us to heaven—to be with God in changeless happiness. To be with him is to fulfill our desire for better days.
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SOPHIA SEBENY says
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article.