JOHN GLENN DIED YESTERDAY AT THE AGE OF 95. Like millions of young boys, he was a hero to me as the first astronaut to orbit the earth in 1962. Having never been accomplished in history, it was a big deal – not just to me but to an entire generation that found hope and fascination in the future.
As soon as it was announced that he had died I tuned into CNN at the top of the hour – but nothing. I flipped over to CBC television and then CTV. It was the top story on both Canadian networks. CNN spent almost 15 minutes on news of Donald Trump before finally getting to the John Glenn story. How sad, I thought to myself, that a bonafide American hero and pioneer had been so fully eclipsed by an individual who’s not even president yet.
This seems to be ever the way with the modern world: the past is so completely swamped by the present and the immediate. During the Christmas season such a tendency can drain the life and meaning out of what is supposed to be a holiday season of reflection. Preparing turkey, endless rounds of shopping, an array of holiday parties, visiting and being visited, even putting up decorations – all these, while necessary and occasionally charming, nevertheless leave us little room to remember.
Which means that one of the secrets of a meaningful Christmas is finding the proper memories to embrace that transcend all the other smaller sentimentalities and “busyness” of the season. “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe,” wrote Guy de Maupassant, “it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” The Christmas season verifies this over and over again – if we take the time to truly remember. Loved ones gone, favourite experiences that moulded our lives, painful happenings that nevertheless turned us stronger and wiser, a smell we will never forget, a touch that can still be felt all these years later, world events that shaped our hopes and expectations – all these, and so many more, must be pulled out of the attic of our brain, dusted off, and examined once more for the lessons they once taught us, and still can again.
We need to pull these out of obscurity for, indeed, those memories are who we are – all of them. Something of true meaning that can still be recalled is never gone. Our memories are where things can happen again for a second time – or a third, or forever.
And often a portion of those summoned memories bring pain. As author Milan Kundera reminds us, this is the true meaning of nostalgia – a combination of the Greek nostos meaning “return,” and altos, denoting “suffering.” In other words, nostalgia is about that pain caused by a desire to return. We must all go through it because such memories were part of our own personal journey, and though they bring a sense of loss, they also made our lives worth living at the time.
Those things that formed us eventually became ghosts inside of us somewhere. And in that process we have kept them alive over the years. But they will remain of little use to us unless we search for them again this Christmas. Some things are worth forgetting, but those memories that built us, strengthened, refined, and perhaps even humbled us, are still tools to guide and accompany us on our present journey. That’s why they stay with us and why they will remain our constant companions in the future. We mustn’t permit them to be obscured by the immediate and temporary. It’s time to dust them off again this season.