What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
In “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis argues that experiences, objects, and images that evoke nostalgia “are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” What Lewis writes of here is something familiar to us: the feeling, seeing, or experiencing a taste of glory, fantastically seeing a part but not the whole. It is what Emily Dickinson called “the certain slant of light,” a beam of brightness that induces an ache in us for which we can find no scar. It is a longing for and a desire to return home, even if that is an unknown place. It is the always-just-beyond, the unseen side of a closed door, a place we have yet to experience wholly.
With no shortage of nostalgia-inducing, rehashed television shows on the horizon, it is worth reminding ourselves that the stories we tell do, in fact, deeply matter.Lately, however, this desire and longing has been commoditized and brightly beamed into our living rooms through nostalgia-evoking shows like the wildly successful Stranger Things, as well as rehashes of numerous television shows from the ’80s and ’90s. From new iterations of sitcoms, such as Full House, to the nostalgia-rich Black Mirror, viewers have been served up a steady and seemingly relentless stream of cultural nostalgia.
But what, beyond quaint reminiscence of the past, might it mean to experience nostalgia, even if it is for, perhaps, a feigned time and place? How does nostalgia for a place like Hawkins, Indiana, the setting for Stranger Things, the kind of American town that we perhaps all want to believe existed but probably never did, echo our deepest desires and carry the reverberations of a redeemed world we do not yet fully know?
And for what, exactly, are we nostalgic for? It must be more than simply a lost innocence or youth, although this is almost certainly part of it. Some argue that it is political, a longing for a Trump-less America of the past. But the 1980s and 1990s were decades hardly free from political instability and racial injustice. Yes, there must be more than these sorts of vague justifications that pretend to settle the matter, the question of our collective craving for nostalgia.
Nostalgia is an emotion, which is to say it is a conscious experience of the mind, not simply a commercial product. It is an emotion strongly tethered to desire and longing. And though it is often used in a nebulous or haphazard way to describe all kinds of experiences or passing bouts of trivial wistfulness, the historical and etymological history of nostalgia is one laden with more intensity.
The word nostalgia first appeared in the 17th century and was coined by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688 to describe a severe form of melancholy experienced among Swiss mercenaries who were serving away from the homelands. Hofer combined two Greek words: nostos and algos, with nostos denoting “home” and algos denoting “pain.” The resulting nostalgia simply denotes something along the lines of, “the pain connected with a return home.”
What Stranger Things and its 1980s nostalgia-evoking counterparts do so well is to call us back to a place and a time that feels to us very much like home. Take Stranger Things, for example. From the first episode, viewers are transported back to the idyllic Midwestern town of Hawkins, Indiana, a world that is filled with cultural objects that have come to typify the era: banana-seat bicycles, voluminous jean jackets, All-Star tennis shoes, cars in various (and hideous) shades of brown, vintage cereal boxes, Nirvanaesque hairstyles. Hawkins is a small town that is simple and innocent and safe. It is familiar, even if we have never known it or a town like it. It is the kind of town where five children can, apparently, experience almost unchecked freedom, roaming the streets alone with nothing but walkie talkies and their one-speed bikes.
But Hawkins not only atmospherically feels like home, it is also a world that is rich in redemption, sacrifice, and grace. The town’s depressed and disgruntled sheriff discovers he is made for far more than he ever thought possible. “Eleven,” as the protagonist is called, sacrifices often for the safety and well-being of her friends. Steve, who in season one is a self-absorbed teenage egotist, transforms into a picture of selflessness and sacrifice in season two, often putting himself in danger for his friends. Throughout both seasons, Stranger Things resonates with us because its themes call us back to the original story of grace and redemption: the gospel.
The doctrine of Christianity teaches that our present world was made for unimaginable glory, a reality that is now thoroughly broken. But there are still glimpses of it around us, if we pay attention and look for them. Faint lights calling us home. And all of the longing and the yearning and the craving and, yes, the nostalgia, is perhaps an unutterable cry for redemption, for the place we were created to be and for the One we were created for. It is what we seek and what everyone around us seeks, too. As Augustine put it, “[Y]ou have made us for yourself, [O Lord,] and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
With no shortage of nostalgia-inducing, rehashed television shows on the horizon, it is worth reminding ourselves that the stories we tell do, in fact, deeply matter. The longing and desire that presses in on us when we watch these shows and immerse ourselves in their worlds should not be missed. It is why, perhaps, when the latest iteration of our favorite sitcom is released or when we once again find ourselves in the world of Hawkins we will say to ourselves, “Show it to me again. Take me home.”
But the point is simply this: do not waste the feeling. Remind yourself that it is but a taste. The scent but not the flower. A warm beam of sunshine on a winter’s day. A slant of light thrown across a barren floor. A peek inside the door.
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