The power of nostalgia

The power of nostalgia
Tom Hoffmann

Over the new year I was excited to go and see part four of the Matrix franchise, The Matrix Resurrections.

I hadn’t been to see a film in years, but I was anticipating this one sufficiently enough to head out of an evening, even during the Omicron surge. It was by no means a great film, in fact, most moviegoers were disappointed by it, from what I gather, but I was grinning ear-to-ear through the whole thing. I loved it! It struck a chord with me for one reason. Nostalgia.

I saw the first Matrix film when I was 18 years old. It blew my mind and became an instant classic in my book. So, spending time once more with characters, Neo, “The One” and Trinity, was a delight. It was like slipping into a warm bath. In the end, the quality of the film itself didn’t matter, I was happily paying to be wrapped up snug in a nostalgia blanket.

It’s been well-documented that the pandemic life we’ve all been living has led many, if not most of us, to seek nostalgic comfort. Perhaps you’ve found yourself disinclined to read new books or start a new TV show, instead you’ve gravitated to the familiar – rereading old books or flicking over to a TV show you’ve seen many times before. There’s a reason why.

Nostalgia has been shown to relieve anxiety and ease the burden of loneliness, two things that have plagued us as much as the plague itself. Reflecting on or dreaming about things from the before-times isn’t just an indulgence. As long as you don’t get lost in the pleasures of the past, it can truly be of benefit as it nudges you in the direction of hope for the future. What once was can surely be again. Right!?

Prayer, in the Christian tradition, does something similarly hopeful for the practitioner suffering through hard times. People of faith often report engaging in the act of prayer more frequently when in distress and indicate that it gives them some relief from their anxieties (which sounds about right if you read Philippians 4:4-7!). But unlike engaging in nostalgia, which is talked about more openly now in this COVID era, prayer has become almost taboo. I’ve observed that people of faith are less likely to say “I’m praying for you” in circles where “sending warm thoughts” might be more acceptable.

The funny thing about this, though, is that the tables have turned, historically speaking. Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor who coined the term “nostalgia” in 1688, saw it as a neurological disease – an unhealthy looking backwards – and he did so in an era that was very much approving of the outward piety of prayer. In a strange way, prayer, which might have been considered a cure for the nostalgia disease in the Christian piety of Johannes Hofer’s 17th century Europe, is now itself considered the disease – a silly self-indulgence that if you must do it, you should keep it and any benefits it might bring you to yourself.

In my opinion, there is a place for both nostalgia and prayer. I can spend time with The One and Trinity from The Matrix and get that warm-fuzzy feeling, but I can also spend time talking to The Holy Trinity through Jesus, The One, and be all the more comforted and confident in the future.

We’re all doing what we need to do to get by at the moment, and sometimes that’s re-reading or re-watching an old classic. But the thing that elevates prayer above nostalgia is how it is moves us from the individual mindset to the communal. Its intent is more than just self-soothing, its focus is outward, and the comfort that is desired through prayer, it is hoped, will be shared. If not now, in eternity •

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