The Life, Death, and Hope of Nostalgia
I’m obsessed with nostalgia. It’s perhaps one of my favorite things. I may even be writing this to merely, humbly confess that I am in fact addicted to nostalgia. Are you surprised? Odds are if you’re close enough with me to read this blog, then… no. You’re in no way surprised. Not at all. In fact, the lengths I go to in order to invite nostalgia into my daily life is alarming (if not humorous):
- My playlists in iTunes form a perpetual list of names like “Fall 2014”, “Winter 2014”, “China Trip” etc. And I’m constantly adding to new lists today for a time of remembrance tomorrow. Yes, I PLAN to be nostalgic. It’s that bad.
- I have shirts in my closet that I’ve only worn once or twice, but have clung to because of the moments that happened in them; a first kiss, a good day on set, or just having worn them in a favorite picture I took. And I often times wear these shirts, that I never wear in public, to sleep in or around the house whenever life feels too “ordinary” for my liking or I’m having a rough day and need a pick me up.
- I buy cheap $15 production slates for every shoot I direct and have our crew members sign the back of them purely so I can go back later, look at the slate, and remember the moment each of them signed it.
- I carry a hand-written note in my wallet from my little sister Kailey as a reminder that even when life is bad, a moment like the moment I read that letter is coming soon and thus… life can’t ever be truly THAT bad. Right? We all have bad days, but a good one’s just around the corner? How’s that for a mouth full of cliches… okay. Anyway.
a variation of Adidas Superstar tennis shoes since the 6th grade… because of nostalgia. I like the romantic notion of feeling like those shoes have “grown up” with me even though I replace them once a year.
I’m a sap, alright? I freely admit it. A sap who uses nostalgia as his lifeline. But, why? Why do I love nostalgia so much?
Something about the past’s sting—about my longing for moments passed by—oddly clues me into the importance of the present. If the past could mean so much to us, how much greater must that make right now? This is true both for the present moment and future reflection back on said moment. It’s this kind of thought that helps put my heart into action immediately. Which, to be honest I prefer to waiting. Nine times out of ten I’d rather go with my gut… yeah, I know, really working on my impatience. Anyway, nostalgia and the idea that any moment could be a future nostalgia moment helps cool my temptation for self-deprecation, cynicism, and frustration. I mean, you don’t look back fondly on bad, cynical times with a longing to relive them, right? And from past experience I can tell you that while self deprecation may seem an like an innocuously humble way to be charming, using it over and over again as a gag is a quick way to buy into the disses you're dishing on yourself. Don’t do that. If you're a person with blood running through your veins then I promise you don’t deserve to treat yourself that way. Back to the nostalgia. I think, ultimately, it keeps me prepared in case this moment IS IN FACT like the last moment I loved so much or… or a new one that I’ll treasure even more.
In short: Nostalgia keeps the heart soft and prepped for vulnerability which I believe to be the seed and soil for any real relationship to grow.
However, after saying all this about nostalgia I must confess that I’m not so sure nostalgia is wholly good. While it may keep you open, soft, and looking for instances of seminal importance… it also may keep you from being swept up and appreciating completely new moments of formation or sentimentality for what they are.
I spent a lot of my twenties drunkenly smoking cigarettes and becoming solely focused on my career. It became my medicine of choice for mourning the death of my nostalgia. Let me explain:
2011 Sucked Ass.
Excuse the profanity, but it was easily the worst year of my life. You see, at the end of college, within that one year some of my most formative relationships crumbled completely. A girl I loved, a best friend, and my relationship with my parents. All three of those relationships, three of the relationships I most admired, most cherished, and was the most intimate with… crushed me in completely unique ways. It was a pretty awful gut punch and the darkest time of my life.
…And let me tell you, nothing kills nostalgia like heartache.
Now, I want to be sure I don’t throw these people under the bus, because despite the hurt we inflicted on one another I still love them. Their impact on my life is immeasurable and when it gets down to brass tacks… I’m just as much at fault for the fissures that broke these relationships.
I shouldn’t have been dating the girl to begin with, but, as a writer and a romantic, I’m selfishly susceptible to making life a narrative. Well, the story of falling for someone on the set of my first feature film (named American Cliche for God’s sake), which my best friends of all time worked on with all of our collective youth, passion, and dreams… was too good a story to pass up. So, straight up? I didn’t. I pursued making that story come true even though I knew I shouldn't have. The girl and I have long-since forgiven one another, she’s an amazing person: smart and truly has a heart for the Lord. So, when I say “I shouldn’t have been dating her” I really don’t mean that out of bitterness, but sheer brutal honesty with my younger, selfish self: I SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN DATING HER. I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t take it back. What I learned and felt since was so important for developing sympathy, integrity, and character. But, if I take off the rose colored glasses (if I stop being nostalgic about it) the leadership I displayed in that relationship was piss-poor at its best, but probably nonexistent in its reality. We “dated” in secrecy because her parents didn’t approve of their high school daughter dating a college kid… no matter how much they liked me. There was wisdom her parents clearly had that I couldn’t see and disrespectfully ignored because of my selfish desire to cling to this narrative I so badly wanted. You can imagine why that ended now. Contrary to popular belief hearts leak secrets not lips, pride does collapse in on itself, and selfishness, no matter how romantic its intention, is never a mark of real love.
The best friend I mentioned was dealing with a whirlwind of family problems that were too personal and intense for me to handle. Honestly, I was reeling from my first major broken heart, but as real as it felt, that problem probably seemed like an incredibly petty complaint in comparison to his issues at the time. Our compassion for each other’s hard time quickly became non-existent. In turn, I became cold and withdrawn and he became mean and manipulative. Friendships don’t last long when those traits dominate the relationship.
And as for the parental issue? Like all people I have a selfish streak that tries to make the world’s problems my own. The truth is, if I would’ve turned to the Spirit, forgiven quickly, and not tried to fix an old wound that had already healed… I would’ve saved myself many nights of hurt and a lot of money that went to booze and cigarettes. Instead I picked bitterness. I picked anger. I think, in a lot of ways, I wanted to because of what the damned year of 2011 had already “done to me”. In 2011 I learned to be sad... and in 2012 I learned to play the victim. Neither are becoming.
But regardless of my complicit role in breaking these relationships, their loss did affect me. To sum this up simply: I felt alone. For all my classical, romantic, artistic wanderings... my confidence with women, and really with investing deeply in any relationship, were pretty much shot. I didn’t want to try with people. Why would I even dare? That was out of the question. After all, if THESE relationships could fail me… anyone could.
Up untill this point in life vulnerability and fearlessness with people and my feelings toward them had always been one of the positive defining marks of my character. It’s what most people first noticed about my personality. I wore my heart on my sleeve with courage, always shared in the moment, and never let fear stop my heart from acting, but after this? Vulnerability became terrifying, optimism became impossible, and nostalgia? It was suddenly rendered useless.
My Nostalgia Died.
The moments I spent with those people who hurt me were now stained by the kind of deep personal hurt that I never imagined I would experience. I had only felt this kind of trauma before when dealing with death (but that's for another post). I didn’t know I could hurt this way. I thought I was tougher than that. Pride’s a bitch, huh? But God does cool stuff when our egos crumble (I’m gonna get there eventually bear with me).
Okay, so how did my “nostlagia die”? The hell does that even mean? Well, what’s the point in fondly remembering a better time if some of the essential characters of said better time were now tainted. Replays of Barry Bonds crushing homers now only cause scowls because of his steroid scandal. Forget OJ Simpson's charming commercials, his name is exclusively synonymous with murder and footage of a speeding white Bronco. And the words, “I’m not a crook.” will forever define Nixon despite a presidency that actually accomplished a great deal of progress. My point is, regardless of who is actually at fault, there’s little to no nostalgia for moments or people that hurt us. Nostalgia by definition requires "happy associations" so, yes, when Christ talks about losing everything... we can even lose our nostalgia. That too can leave.
If my vulnerability was once the hallmark of my personality than ambition wasn’t far behind it. And when I didn’t feel like I could be vulnerable anymore, I leaned on ambition hard. Real hard, for about four years straight. After all I could control my work. I could control how many shorts I made or scripts I wrote. At this point in my life you know what the best part about writing was? I didn’t need to rely on anyone else for it. If workaholism is already an American epidemic it’s a good thing this largely repressed culture of ours doesn’t all work in fiction. Because immersing myself in the fake stories I controlled completely was more numbing than the countless whiskey-cokes I drank.
And the crazy thing is that work I did? It actually got noticed during this time. My dream of having a career as a filmmaker actually started to become a reality. I wrote a script with Cole that placed in the top 15% of the Academy’s Nicholl fellowship. I started to get offers to direct commercials for fortune 500 companies. Then, in January of 2016, right near the end of this "dark era", I wrote a pilot that climbed to the number one spot on the BlackList website. For you non-industry folks The BlackList is the number one source for finding un-repped literary talent in Hollywood. Often times ranking highly on The BlackList will lead to script sales or representation (and it did eventually get me signed by my manager). The point? Well, with each new success I doubled down on my work-focused life. I built my identity around that and fueled it with pride. If it didn’t have to do with my career as a writer/director (or, I’ll be honest, Dallas Cowboys football) I didn’t want much to do with it during those years.
Women? I went on maybe three dates in five years I spent in Dallas after 2011 and talked myself out of giving a lot of wonderful women a fair chance. Mostly, I had no interest in the risk of that pain again. Also, on a subconscious level, even in this depressed state I think I knew that there was very little truly attractive about me at this point in my life. And looking back I’m incredibly grateful God kept me from really dating during that time. No woman deserved that punishment hah. But in all sincerity as I look back I now realize I had no business dating anyone. Genuinely, the fact that I escaped such a hazy, alcohol ladened era of my life with my virginity and no additional heartache is a miracle.
Church? While I wouldn’t say I doubted the divinity of Christ or existence of God during this time (the idea of "God" and a creator has always made too much logical sense to me to ignore even when I'm "mad at Him" or don't feel God's presence in my life. Science and religion aren't exclusive people--ahh, sorry, again another blog post), I definitely wasn’t pursuing what it meant to be a Christian. I still read theological books because I’ve always found that sort of philosophical exercise intellectually fulfilling and stimulating. However, due to the state of my hardened heart, the author’s words weren’t giving me much more than talking points for drunken debates with my religiously diverse drinking buddies where I kind of took an odd pride in playing the role of the drinking, smoking Christian. It’s crazy, but even though my day job as an editor officed out of the church where I spent nearly every Sunday and Wednesday night for the last decade, I went almost four years (2012-2016) without attending a church service or function anywhere.
Friends? I got lucky here. There were people that surrounded me in that time that slowly chipped away at my bitterness and invited me to be open again. To be myself. They loved me regardless and were a huge part of opening me back up to vulnerability. However, if we weren’t talking about what project we were making or drinking enough whiskey for that to let me do the talking… I often wasn’t “truly” there and doubt I offered much.
Family? Mostly I gave minimal effort that was driven exclusively by guilt (there’s that Irish ancestry). I showed up for Sunday birthday parties, but usually with bags under my eyes from a Saturday at the bar.
Health? lol. I’ll let you imagine, but it looked something like this:
Don’t worry my eating log and spinach salad are grossed out for you.
***I know it seems like I'm being very hard on myself and this period of my life, but it's all for a very good point... I promise. If you're my mom and reading this about your son has been incredibly difficult... it should make you feel better to know since I've moved to LA last summer I've quit smoking, am going to church, lost nearly 40 lbs, and have done a complete overhaul on my diet. It makes me feel better. Not that these are the marks of success, but... for you mom hah.
But, anyway, when nostalgia died. When I became a shell of my former self and wondered if I was “fixable”… When I considered my former openness, ability to share, and prior vitality for life another casualty of life’s heartaches… When I had resigned the fact that it was gonna be a wild-ride of movie-making and cigarettes till I crashed and burned…
God used the funniest thing to grab me. You ready?
Not my nostalgia, but my sister’s. At one of those aforementioned Sunday family functions when I half-heartedly showed up with a hangover, my sister Kailey pulled me aside. Despite our seven year age gap Kailey is the person who knows me better than anyone. Aside from that, she's as perceptive as she is stubborn. Kailey and I are incredibly close and she has been (and will always be) a bastion of joy and light heartedness for me and many others. It should’ve come as no surprise to me that she was the person who asked two very simple questions. Two questions that would point me towards recovering my identity.
- Are you really being the person God designed you to be?
- Are you even really being the person you want to be?
I paused. And hesitated. In the hesitation she sniffed out my answer and softly said:
You never used to have to think about those questions and that was my favorite thing about you. I still love you, but where did that go?
She knew that deep down God wanted more for me than drunken bar debates and screenplays. She knew that my identity was never meant to be placed in my vulnerability or my career, but simply in the fact that I can love because He can. That if God can overcome the heartache of sending Christ to die and still love us, then I could overcome the scars I had faced and still be vulnerable. And lastly, she reminded me that I was the one who once told her that.
I hope you have a little sister, because their ability to rock you is a blessing everyone should experience.
Despite the hurt I had been through, despite how much of my life since 2011 had become wasted on gross selfishness, Kailey cared enough to still be nostalgic for who I was, had been, and could be. And this reminder couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. It was March of 2016, I was getting ready to move to LA and that was the nail in the coffin. After that I would have literally given up damn-near-everything for my career. My health, relationships, faith (for the most part), and now my hometown and family. Well, this conversation with Kailey led me to listen to a sermon by Josh Carney at UBC. And that sermon led me to a book. That book was LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK by Parker Palmer. In it Palmer carefully examines how life's pain, our inner passions, and our work all whisper to the vocation God desires for us.
As eff’ing hokey as this sounds. Palmer’s words began to heal the last five years of carnage and melt the walls I'd built around myself. That book helped me realize (again) that ambition and radical passion towards your career was okay, even God inspired, but it (career ambition) WAS NOT everything. My five years of wreckage wasn’t useless wasted time, but a necessary time of formation. These words solidified the idea that if we’re brave enough to face our hurt, to be vulnerable about our hurt, then God can and will use that very hurt to unearth bits of who we are and lovingly guide us through life. Palmer's words helped awaken the “me” that Kailey was nostalgic for. They awoken my nostalgia. Words like:
“When we so fear the dark that we demand light around the clock, there can be only one result: artificial light that is glaring and graceless and, beyond its borders, a darkness that grows ever more terrifying as we try and hold it off. Split off from each other, neither darkness nor light is fit for human habitation. But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing.”
“…if we want to save our lives, we cannot cling to them but must spend them with abandon.”
“Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them — and receive them from others when we are in need.”
“By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.”
Everything Palmer wrote seemed so fitting. Even thought he'll hate me fore saying it, I'll be forever thankful to Josh for evangelizing that book so much. Everything I read in it seemed to awaken the Holy Spirit inside me and personally prepare me in the best way for the “new life” I was about to begin in LA. But, of all the great quotes and chapters from that book, perhaps the most profound/encouraging portion I read was this:
“A third shadow common among leaders is ‘functional atheism’, the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.
This shadow causes pathology on every level of our lives. It leads us to impose our will on others, stressing our relationships, sometimes to the point of breaking. It often eventuates in burnout, depression and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact. Functional atheism is the shadow that drives collective frenzy as well. It explains why the average group can tolerate no more than fifteen seconds of silence: if we are not making noise, we believe, nothing good is happening and something must be dying.
The gift we receive on the inner journey is the knowledge that ours is not the only act in town. Not only are there other acts out there, but some of them are even better than ours, at least occasionally! We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others, liberating us and empowering them. We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether. The great community asks us to do only what we are able and trust the rest to other hands.”
I wasn’t the only act in town. I wasn’t the only one with identity crippling scars. I wasn’t the only one nostalgic for a sense that I was moving to who God called me to be. And, yes, absolutely “other acts out there are better than mine”. A-effing-men. Kailey’s act is. So many of my friends' acts are. And that selfless idea of letting go of my act to support others is oddly so relieving. That’s an idea that can heal. From experience, that’s an idea that can soften your heart, an idea that can take you back to church, an idea that will allow you to care for your health again, and ultimately, an idea that will allow you vulnerability again. Whether you're one of my Christian friends or secular friends, I don't think there's an argument that life becomes better when it's not completely about you.
As I mentioned before, this book (LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK) gave me back my nostalgia, and thus, gave me back a longing for vulnerability, a hope outside of my career, and a faith and confidence in myself I hadn’t felt in years. While I’m still very much on the road-to-recovery in terms of my confidence and correctly finding/placing my identity fully in Christ and not things or my career (let’s be real, that’ll be a life-long road), all my recent pondering of nostalgia came full circle this weekend. A pastor from Reality Stockton was preaching at Reality LA and he made this point:
**the sermon audio hasn’t been podcasted yet so forgive me for not quoting directly, but I’ll paraphrase from my notes**
We have a deep desire to cling onto things that will leave us. So much of a desire that we create nostalgia for these things/people/places once they’re no longer with us. Nostalgia is that place we can go for them after they’ve left us. It’s hurtful and beautiful and crazy, but even this thing... even nostalgia, draws us ever closer to God, the only One/thing who remains.
Sorry for the long and winding rant, but the last year and a half of recovering myself has been incredible. I'm still unpacking it and finding new hope, courage, and experiences in this new city I call home with a renewed faith and vigor for life. I just wanted to share my story, an ever changing and ongoing saga/love affair with nostalgia. My hope is that you haven’t lost your sense of nostalgia. But if you do feel like it is indeed lost, might I recommend looking for it with good friends, little sisters, and soulful books.
PS: You can also blog about it. I hear that helps.