What is nostalgia? I typed that question and then had to go look up the word because I wasn’t actually sure. As you are probably saying to yourself right now, yes, nostalgia is a longing for the past, often in an idealized form. But Wikipedia also told me it comes from a compound of two words, one meaning returning home and the other meaning pain or ache. (See, aren’t you glad I looked it up?)
I’m reading CS Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised By Joy, for a class I’m taking in a few weeks. In it he tries to timeline the development of his imagination. The first glimpse of which he calls, “the memory of a memory.” He goes on to describe a toy garden from his childhood saying…
“It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? Not, certainly, for [the toy garden], nor even (though that came into it) for my own past. And before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.”
A memory of a memory. A longing for the longing. This unsatisfied desire is what defines Lewis’s understanding of JOY. If the desire were satisfied, the joy itself would be destroyed. That makes joy “a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.” Joy likened to the strange combination of both returning home and also pain and ache.
Only CS Lewis could get away with describing joy by such dismal and lofty standards.
But I have to agree. In my own life I’m finding that joy is as complex and deep as it is easy. It is as safe as it is risky. It is reachable, yet eternal. It is enjoyable, yet harsh. Joy is living in the tension of being content, yet never satisfied or finished.
By my own standards – this kind of joy that CS Lewis talks about, and that I find myself longing for more and more deeply, is mysterious enough and compelling enough to make life worth doing.