Scott Peck drew a distinction between the existential and the neurotic. In my words, I contrast these taking the existential to refer to that which is “life-giving and relationship-enhancing,” while the neurotic diminishes life and relationships. He illustrated this distinction using our experiences of guilt and fear as examples.
Imagine you are in the front row of a movie theater. On the screen is a stretch of rails on which a train is swiftly hurtling directly toward you, the roar of its engine reaching a fightening crescendo over the theater sound system. To bolt from one’s seat and out the emergency exit would be an example of a neurotic fear.
Imagine, next, you are outdoors walking across a bayou on a railroad bridge. As a train surprises you from around the bend, closing quickly on your position, you will experience the same “fight or flight” emotional intensity as you did during your theater experience, as your sympathetic nervous system triggers the very same hormonal surge of adrenaline. To bolt from the tracks and into the cold muddy water would be an example of an existential fear.
Note how the descriptors, existential and neurotic, refer — not to the feelings, emotions or neuro-endocrine responses, but — to a person’s behavior, which includes both a cognitive interpretation and a physical response. How one percieves, processes and responds to a given environmental circumstance and emotional milieu will qualify their fear or guilt as existential or neurotic (or some degree of each on a continuum). Thus they say that courage is moving forward — not without, but — in spite of our fears! Love, too, we’ve been told, is not a feeling but a decision and commitment.
In a recent reflection, I mused on Thomas Merton’s wisdom, where he describes our two major human crises in terms of continuity and creativity. Crises of continuity include what can be called “deaths” of all sorts, big and little, physical and relational, etc Those of creativity include the frustrations of our aspirations to “make a difference” or “to matter” or “be somebody.” I suggested that the final resolution of these crises will come from our Eucharistic Participation in an eternal co-creativity, as Jesus solves our ultimate crisis of continuity in eternal life and the Spirit fosters our making a difference as we co-create with Christ — in memorial and thanksgiving with a most real presence, celebrating God’s covenant in an eternal banquet.
I mention these distinctions of Peck and Merton to place our experiences of nostalgia in a context. This is the time of year when feelings of nostaligia can wash over us, sometimes by crashing down on us in unexpected waves, at other times purposefully conjured by our recalled memories and practiced traditions, all further nurtured by music and art, gatherings and rituals.
Now, if you’re like me, event-triggered and seasonally-inspired nostalgia can often seem a mixed blessing. I am happy to report, however, that research has shown that nostalgia is indispensable to our emotional well being.
In the same way that other feelings ( talking here about “bad” feelings but “good” feelings can be im/properly harnessed to behaviors, too) can lead to existential or neurotic responses, healthy or unhealthy behaviors, I propose that nostalgia, too, can be life-giving and relationship-enhancing, existential and healthy (or not)!
What might differentiate healthy from unhealthy nostalgia, though?
Let’s turn to Bishop Sheen, who wrote: “All our anxieties relate to time. The major problems of psychiatry revolve around an analysis of the despair, pessimism, melancholy, and complexes that are the inheritances of “what has been” or with the fears, anxieties, worries, that are the imaginings of “what will be.” (“Sanctifying the Moment” in Lift Up Your Heart, 1950)
“Because God is full of life, I imagine each morning Almighty God says to the sun, ‘Do it again’; and every evening to the moon and the stars, ‘Do it again’; and every springtime to the daisies, ‘Do it again’; and every time a child is born into the world asking for curtain call, that the heart of the God might once more ring out in the heart of the babe.”(Life Is Worth Living, Fifth Series)
A healthy, existential response to nostalgia, then, orients itself — neither to what has been in the past nor to what will be in the future, but — in the now, drawing inspiration from all we give thanks for from our past with an aim — not to re-create it, but — to co-create those very same value-realizations now, in the moment, in the present, with these faces, in these places, some new, some old! Without at all detracting from the beauty and goodness of sacred faces & places of old, we honor them as we mine for new treasures in new faces & places, co-creatively making them sacred, too!
Tony deMello had a saying, pertinent here: “We don’t cling to the note only because we might miss the symphony!” That’s my paraphrase, anyway. Each note, each sacred time and place, every cherished holy face, remains ours forever! Their beauty and glory are realized — not in isolation from, but — in relationship to the symphony.
There need be no mournful grasping, desperate clutching or needy clinging! To paraphrase Hans Kung: “Every trace of human goodness is being eternalized; every beginning of a smile; all wholesome trivialities!” The past has been taken care of and will be ours, more fully, in a certain though unseen future.
As Christmas approaches, hear your loved ones who’ve passed on, along with the heavenly choirs, urging our celebrations, our bonfires, our gift-giving, our joyful gatherings in a chorus of “Do it, again!”
Imagine with me, at the birth of that next great-grandchild, that great cloud of witnesses of loved ones who’ve passed chanting with our God: “Do it, again!”
Know that our loved ones, near or far, living or in heaven, join us as we engage in every Eucharistic form of participation, every time we eternally co-create by celebrating His Word proclaimed, His People gathered, each family member’s birthday, each holy day’s festivities. That’s how we are meant to eternally make a difference!
Do it, again, NOW!
Do it, again, HERE!
After all, there is NO-WHERE else.
Attached are sample Google Search Results for “healthy nostalgia.” I didn’t belabor examples of unhealthy or neurotic nostalgia. If you’re like me, you know the experience and dysfunctional response all too well.