I’m goin’ back in timeEaglesLongRoadOutOfEden
And it’s a sweet dream
It was a quiet night
And I would be all right
If I could go on sleepin’
(“Best of My Love,” Eagles, 1974)

Last week Bernice gave me an early birthday treat. She got us tickets to the Eagles concert held in the Indoor Stadium here in Singapore. We got more than our money’s worth. The concert started a bit late and there was a fifteen-minute intermission. Otherwise it was three solid hours of high-energy performance. As one reviewer said, it would have been easier to name which of their hit songs they did not sing. The Eagles just went from one hit song to another, hitting all the right notes with their voices and their instruments. I hope I am that energetic when I hit my sixties. (I assume they were not aided by banned pharmaceutical substances.)

They included a number of songs from their latest album, Long Road Out of Eden (2007). Long Road Out of Eden is a great album that won a number of awards and went platinum. The songs they chose from the double album were excellent: well crafted, mature lyrics, great harmony, beautifully sung. But the audience’s response to these songs was tentative at best. Many in the audience probably never heard of Long Road Out of Eden. A large proportion of the audience were middle aged and they were there for “Hotel California,” “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Desperado.” They were there to listen to songs from the soundtrack of their lives. They were there for nostalgia.

Nothing beats a familiar smell, or a familiar song, for evoking memories. Middle-aged folks like me are suckers for nostalgia. For one, we are more aware of our mortality. For another, the challenges at our chapter of life make us yearn for a simpler time. We can’t go back in time but we can visit the past through concerts which feature songs from our younger days. Nostalgia can be addictive, hence the large number of aging rock stars still on tour. Their primary audience are baby boomers wanting regular fixes of nostalgia and able to pay for it.

But nostalgia should be taken in small doses at best. Too much nostalgia robs us of our lives in the present, our real-time lives. As Gordon T. Smith helpfully points out:

There is nothing to be gained by nostalgic sentimentalism or by living in the past, regretfully wishing that things had been different. We must look back, but we look back so that we can be fully present to the current situation, to the current moment, to the real circumstances of our current life situation. (Courage & Calling, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999, 109)

Besides, the good old days may not have been all that good. Our memories are selective, editing out the more painful parts of our past, and keeping only the pleasant memories. What we remember may be a psychologically “air-brushed” picture of what really happened.

Does that mean that nostalgia is always wrong? I guess it depends on why we travel to the past.

Nostalgia can be used as an attempt to reconstruct an idealized past with the awareness of the impossibility of going back.  These are expressions about thriving in a distant past that is long gone, and yearning for the things that are lost with feelings of uncertainty about the present.  Or nostalgia can be used as a point of reference and evoked to express a person’s feelings about themselves and a present situation by way of comparison.  (R. Douglas Fields, “Looking through Rose Colored Glasses — Does Nostalgia Make You Old?” The New Brain, Psychology Today, December 31, 2010.)

Do I want to go back to some earlier part of my life? No. I am grateful for what I know now, about God, about life, about myself. I wouldn’t trade all this for a relocation to some previous part of my history. The wisdom I have now is critical to my life and ministry. It is wisdom gleaned from many painful mistakes, a harvest reaped from the sowing of tears and regrets. I wouldn’t want to go through all that again.

And so in a week when I celebrate my fifty-sixth birthday, I look back on my life and see the grace of God at every turn, a God who did not treat me as I deserved, but was merciful again and again. As I approach my fifty-sixth birthday, I hear the apostle Paul calling to me:

Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected – but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14, NET)

On my fifty-sixth birthday, I celebrate that I am safely held by Jesus, I take a deep breath, and press on to all that He has in store for me. Great concert though.