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Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)

I don’t know what COVID-19 is doing to the brains of others as the long days of physical separation grind on. For me, it’s apparently introduced a full-blown case of nostalgia. I’m drifting through old photos pondering how uncomplicated things seemed back then. I’m wistfully remembering things like road trips and concerts and sporting events—things that seem almost literally impossible these days. And I’m listening to the music of my childhood more than usual. Yesterday, it was the Counting Crows and Genesis as I barbecued in the backyard. The day before it was (gulp) Heart and Roxette. The day before that it was an embarrassingly bad playlist of power ballads. I could go on, but in the interests of preserving what’s left of my dignity I should probably stop. 

Ah, never mind. Speaking of power ballads, my friends sometimes tease me for being something of a sucker for this genre. They’re right. I am. One of my favourites from the eighties could well be the soundtrack of 2020, Cinderella’s, Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone). I giggled the other day when I read the Apple Music description of the band’s “larynx shredding vocals.” But as to the title of the song, no, I suppose we don’t. We take for granted that the way things are now is the way they will remain. We can’t imagine the taken-for-granted things of life will be taken away. We often only recognize how much we valued something as we’re watching it recede in the rear-view mirror.

A global pandemic is probably about as natural a time for nostalgia as any. In the face of all the uncertainty that is our daily diet these days, we instinctively, sometimes even desperately look back—back to when things seemed more stable, hopeful, promising, or at least predictable. The etymology of the word “nostalgia” points to a kind of longing for home and even while “home” might be the last thing any of us are longing for these days, confined to them as we are, I think we get the point. “Home” is often more a time and a symbol and a feeling than a specific place anyway.

David Berry recently wrote a piece in the Walrus called “Why Nostalgia is our New Normal.” In it, he describes what I suspect many of us are feeling these days:

There is the feeling the word describes, of course: a fundamentally impossible yearning, a longing to go back even as we are driven ceaselessly forward, pushed further away from our desire even as we sit contemplating it. But it’s the actual feeling, too, that ceaselessly resists any attempt to give it shape or sense. If we say we feel nostalgic, in general or about something in particular, it rarely needs an explanation, and there likely isn’t a good one anyway: Why should it be the smell of our grandmother’s cookies or the feel of a particular sweater or the sight of a certain tree in a certain playground, and not something else, that sends us searching backward? Why is it welling up now, on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday? Why haven’t I felt this way for a long time? Why does it matter? And that assumes it even occurs to us to interrogate this sudden rush: one of nostalgia’s more persistent qualities is its ability to elide reason, to be felt deeply without prompting any further inquiry.

Yes, nostalgia certainly does “elide reason.” We feel it deeply but we don’t always or even often know why. To live is to lose things along the way and Berry notes the sadness that comes along with this:

[T]here are thousands of less obvious and often profoundly more meaningful endings that we realize only in retrospect, whether their finality creeps up on us across the ages or announces itself with thunderous realization. When was the last time your daughter fell asleep on your chest? The last time you had a drink with your best friend? The last time you ate the pasta at your favourite restaurant? The last time you petted your cat? The last time you felt like a kid? The last time a song made you cry? The last time you kissed your ex? The last time you hugged your old man? It’s not just that we don’t know while it’s happening but that we literally can’t know until the experience is well and truly out of reach. We don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone, and we don’t even know when it will go.

I’ve been spending time in the book of Lamentations over the past few days. It is a deep book of wisdom, poetry and theology, but it could also be seen at least on one level as an exercise in nostalgia. The writer despondently looks back on a time before the destruction of Jerusalem, before the Babylonians took everything away, before all that was good and ordered in the world was razed to the ground. I am the one who has seen affliction, he says. And yet,

this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail (Lam 3:21-22).

It is the love and compassion of God that offers hope, even when all seems lost. Even though the writer of Lamentations fearlessly attributes even his suffering to the hand of God (He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long), he knows that the One who has laid him low is the only One who can raise him up.

Berry ends his article on nostalgia rather grimly:

The knowledge that life is fleeting is barely digestible in retrospect; in real time, it’s debilitating. We yearn to go back because life is loss, loss, loss, all the way down.

The hope of Lamentations, the hope of Christian faith more generally is that this is not true. Life is not loss, loss, loss, all the way down even if it absolutely feels like this at times. Life in fact is love all the way down. It is because of the Lord’s great love that we are not consumed. It is because of the Lord’s great love that there is hope. It is because of the Lord’s great love our yearning is allowed to stretch out in two directions—to the past that has formed and rooted us, certainly, but also to the future where what is broken can be mended, where failures can be finally forgiven and remembered no more, and where what has been lost can be found again.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Renita #

    Just watched a live-stream of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in concert, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. All the players were on stage 6 feet apart, masks dangling from the music stands, and exquisitely sad music. No in-house audience; just a couple of us on a 12-inch computer screen and blue-tooth. In tears. Don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.

    Thanks again for your words, Ryan. God’s love allows us to yearn for beauty in 2 directions. I think there’s beauty in the yearning towards the past where we were like kids who simply took loveliness for granted, and there’s beauty in the yearning towards the future where, like you said, the broken can be mended and the lost can be found.

    May 20, 2020
    • Thanks, Renita. The picture you paint of the symphony evokes all kinds of sadness. One of many examples that could be piled on top of one another these days, unfortunately. I think we’re all getting sick of 12-inch screens and everything that they try (and fail) to replace.

      (Perhaps you can take a small amount of consolation from the fact that the music that evokes your nostalgia is considerably more high-brow than mine 🙂 )

      May 20, 2020

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