Nostalgia versus Tradition

A little O’Connor and a little Tolkien for your Friday

I don’t know about you, but my time spent on the Internet can always benefit from a little Flannery O’Connor. Over at First Thoughts, Leroy Huizenga uses characters from O’Connor’s famous short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to illustrate an important insight about the difference between nostalgia and reverence for the past:

I’ve been teaching Flannery O’Connor in an online course, The Catholic Imagination, and in her gruesome story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” the characters of the grandmother, Red Sammy, and the Misfit indulge in nostalgia, the belief that the past was better than the present. For instance, the grandmother says, “In my time…children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then.” Red Sammy says, “A good man is hard to find…Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.” The Misfit remembers fondly his father’s words and deeds.

This nostalgia is not healthy; it keeps the characters constrained in their inauthentic ways, as they believe the present is a time when virtue and transformation is simply too difficult.

Soul-deadening nostalgia should not be confused with treasuring tradition, Huizenga says:

Nostalgia is a sin, a form of sloth, and engaging in it enervates discipleship and devotion. But tradition is different; tradition is not the dead faith of the living but rather the living faith of the dead, as Pelikan said. To live within and out of tradition is not to daydream about days gone by most of us never experienced anyway, but rather to ride the crest of the wave of God’s redemptive story as we live out our own stories within its broader plot.

We have no other time than the present in which to live; all of us were called for such a time as this, this time, here, now, Today, as long as it is called Today, wherever and whenever we are.

That last insight—that we all are all called to live in the time in which we find ourselves—reminds me of my very favorite quote from The Lord of the Rings, from the scene in the clip below:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.