It’s a beautiful day in 1985 in Hill Valley, California. A teenage lad named Marty is a less than stellar student whose home life is also not the healthiest. In fact one of Marty’s greatest anxieties is that he will turn out like his parents. Interestingly, one of Marty’s friends is an eccentric scientist named Doc. Doc’s most recent crazy project is attempting to build a time machine housed in a DeLorean sports car. The next thing you know Marty is driving this high performance car when it suddenly sends him “Back to the Future!” 1955 to be exact. And thus begins a journey of recalibrating the past in a way that changes the course of his parents’ – and subsequently Marty’s – life forever.
My guess is that if each of us had access to a time machine we would probably make a few different choices. Yet my sense is that if we did have a time machine at our disposal, we would just as likely use it to return to a time that we would love to experience again. Ah, nostalgia! That longing or desire for a time in our past that we remember with great affection. There of course is another side to nostalgia.
Albeit not perfect, I had a great childhood. Although I would make some “better choices” college was awesome. While I would do a few things different, I absolutely loved being a parent to school age children. With almost every season of my life I can make similar statements. And it is absolutely delightful to reminisce nostalgically about each and every one of them. Yet when I’m really honest I know that my rear view mirror is clouded with romanticism. That of course is the other side of nostalgia.
I can’t tell you the number of times individuals or groups that I have lead made some form of the statement, “Why can’t we just go back…” I, too, know that desire all too well. However I recognize that the person or community is looking through a romanticized lens. Yes, there were great moments, great experiences, and those are to be cherished. Yet upon deeper reflection we can also see things that through time, experience and broader exposure it is clearly a good thing we have left them behind. For example, when Church folk say to me, “I wish we could go back…” I respond as compassionately as possible, “I just want to remind you how badly a significant number of humans were treated during the time you are referring to.”
Yes, there are many things of our individual and collective history that are worthy of remembering fondly. However the paradigm that the past was wonderful, the present has significant challenges and the future is unknown, and as such, very unsettling, has the potential to miss both this moment and all the possibilities of the future ones. As I have written, taught and spoken on a great deal, especially during the pandemic, we all get three days: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Each has its value. Yesterday has much to cherish, AND to learn from. Today has so much to embrace, AND to learn from. Tomorrow has so much possibility, especially if we are intentional about truly learning from the other two days. In my experience the best way to lean into all three days is to have good truth-telling elders, accountability companions, and visionary partners in your life.
There is no going back. As one of my great mentor theologians taught me, “The Spirit always leads forward!” Likewise one of my favorite leadership coaches drilled into me, “One eye on your history, one eye on what’s happening right now, both eyes looking to the horizon!”