Regret and nostalgia can destroy lives. They are mirrored ideas with the same pitfalls: neither can change the past, and both keep us from living in the present. When we live wishfully rather than interacting with the present, we’re bound to miss out and hurt others. Since other people don’t necessarily share our feelings about the past, they feel less important to us here and now. And indeed, we’re making them less important. We’re concerned instead with how things could have been or used to be.
This is precisely what happens after the Israelites flee Egypt: “Then all the community lifted up their voices, and the people wept during that night. And all the children of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and all the community said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt or in this desert!’ ” (Numbers 14:1–2).
As usual with regret and nostalgia, these words were said in frustration but born out of fear: “Why did Yahweh bring us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little children will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:3).
And their fear even takes them to the next level of disobedience against God’s will—they will overthrow Moses’ leadership: “They said to each other, ‘Let us appoint a leader, and we will return to Egypt’ ” (Numbers 14:4). Nostalgia is dangerous: it causes us to forget the wretchedness of the past and exchange it for fond memories. We begin to focus on the good things and drift away from obedience in the process. Regret, too, is dangerous, as we wish we had never ended the good times but kept on living the life that was never good for us to begin with.
This scene in Numbers illustrates a profound point: collective memory enables regret and nostalgia to create mob rule instead of God rule.
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