I must carry nostalgia in my DNA. Just look at my 12-year-old son, sitting there on the couch, reading history textbooks with the same kind of longing I once did.
“Mom,” he says, with that sad but dreamy look in his eyes, “cars were just better back then. Don’t you wish we could drive this?” I follow his pointing finger and see a few paragraphs about the development of the automobile and an image of a 1927 Ford Model A. I can’t imagine giving up the comfort of my minivan, but I tell my son, “Honey, I understand. When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to trade my Velcro sneakers for high-button boots.”
Nostalgia describes a sentimental longing for the past, but we almost always use the word to describe a time or a place of happy memories. My wish to trade the ease of Velcro for the tedium of a buttonhook suggests nostalgia is sometimes more mysterious. And as a parent, I already know that it can defy reason and logic. When my sister-in-law recently shared photos of her newborn son, I remembered those bleary-eyed days (and nights) of 12 years ago with a complicated ache. I didn’t exactly wish to return to days that were far from easy, but I looked back and saw something beautiful and precious that still influences how I feel about this freckled boy pouring over his history book.
When my memory wanders even further back, I find an ache that is more complicated still. Years of infertility preceded this son’s birth. Long months and years of the same preceded the birth of his older sister and the births of his younger brother and baby sister. For a decade, my life revolved around a longing for children that was repeatedly undermined by health problems defying prescriptions, treatments, and cures.
What do I feel when I remember those many days of uncertainty, disappointment, and sorrow? I have long struggled to articulate my feelings but was recently startled into understanding by a few verses from the book of Romans. Paul, who traded privilege for prison, writes, “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). I had dismissed those verses long ago, convinced they set a bar I could never reach and did not even want to aim for. Why would I ever choose to wear such rose-colored glasses?
The gift of four children hasn’t erased the memory of my misery. I can still recall the bitterness of dashed hopes and the daily pain of realizing I had no control over the thing I most desired in life. Did I exult in my suffering at the time? I know I did not. But what was I feeling now about the particular tribulation of infertility?
We live in a world that loves stories of overcoming. It isn’t only Christians who adore “redemption” stories, where heartbreak turns into love and sickness becomes healing. In one essay from The Long Weeping, Jessie van Eerden recalls a particularly hard season in her own life. She writes, “How we get from there to here is maybe not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is the nostalgia for the heartache. How you miss it.” I can no longer deny that what I feel when I look back on those days is an ache and a longing not altogether different from the longing I feel when I pull a pair of impossibly small baby socks from my son’s keepsake box. Holding those little blue socks, I recall not only my extreme sleep deprivation but also the perfection of his 10 tiny toes. And when I remember infertility, I recall not only the hurt but so much else: the friends who listened when I spoke through tears, the hours I spent wrestling with God over an open Bible and prayer journal, the comfort I eventually received when I understood that my sadness was not a small or unimportant thing to one “acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).
Perhaps we overlook something important when we privilege the happy ending above all else. Perhaps there is some treasure to be found in hardship. I have begun to suspect that this strange and surprising nostalgia may be the key I’ve needed to unlock the mystery of Paul’s difficult charge to exult in tribulation.
I would not wish suffering on anyone, yet if I wished those days away from my own life, who would I be? I have no desire to return to the person I was in the early days of unmet longing. In those days, I did not trust God’s goodness. In those days, the love of God seemed as insubstantial, as paper-thin as the pages of my Bible. In those days, I was sure God cared more about world peace or unsaved souls than He did about me and my yearning for a child. Hardship changed me. I could even say it made me.
I would not wish suffering on anyone, yet if I wished those days away from my own life, who would I be?
In those years, I didn’t exult in my tribulation, but my attitude toward hardship has been different ever since. I know something of the gifts only suffering can give—for instance, the comfort of friends and the comfort of God. I know that as disorienting as suffering can be, we are sometimes able to experience reliance on God and on others that is difficult to achieve in more ordinary seasons. As Sebastian Junger writes, “Adversity often leads people to depend more on one another, and that closeness can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times.” No wonder I sometimes feel homesick for my own experience of heartbreak.
I exult in my old tribulation, but I also contemplate potential suffering with much less fear. I do this not because of the happy ending of four children but because in the depth of my pain, I received the seed of a hope that reached far, far beyond my desire for family. That hope took root and grew, and today my soul finds shelter under its canopy.
Illustrations by Tim McDonagh