Monday, October 3, 2011

Living in the Now

"A Bridge Too Far," based on the non-fiction book by Cornelius Ryan, is an unusual war film. It chronicles how a daring military plan to do an end run around the Nazis fell apart due to a bunch of garden-variety screw-ups by the Allies. Paratroopers are dropped at the wrong sites; radios are dispatched with the wrong batteries; and everything takes much longer than planned, leaving a brave group of British soldiers behind enemy lines waiting for reinforcements that never come. In one of the more harrowing episodes, Major Julian Cook, played by Robert Redford, is to lead an Allied force across a river to secure the other end of a bridge held by the Nazis. The plan is for them to cross by night, with the help of fog machines, to minimize casualties. The special canvas boats don't arrive until midday the next day. The wind blows the wrong way, taking the artificial fog with it. Thus Cook and his men must paddle directly into enemy fire in broad daylight. As Nazi snipers and machine gunners pick off his men, Cook shouts for his troops to keep low. In between, he is paddling in the lead boat using his rifle butt. With each stroke he says one fragment of prayer. So the crossing is divided into numerous small moments as he repeats "Hail Mary, full of grace," "Hail Mary, full of grace," "Hail Mary, full of grace." Besides the comfort of the prayer, Cook is keeping himself in the present moment when to think too much about the future, even the next second, could paralyze anyone with anxiety and fear. Half the boats make it to the other side where they then have to run across 200 meters of open beach. And perhaps Cook's prayers work. The Nazis have dynamited the bridge. When it falls to the Allies, the commanding officer gives the order to blow it up. Inexplicably, the charge doesn't ignite and the Allies roll their tanks and trucks across the bridge.

What struck me was the psychological wisdom of concentrating on one stroke, one phrase, one moment to get through an ordeal. Our slip from the sermon suggestion box reads, "In God, there's only now, timeless and eternal. How can we, caught in the 'busyness' of life remember to focus only on the joy of this moment, not on our past failings or worries of tomorrow?" The writer correctly sees eternity not as endless time but as being outside of time so that every moment is now. Time is also a creation of God so he lives outside it but can visit it at any point, the way a helicopter pilot can visit any point of a parade without being subject to its flow.

We, however, have our assigned place in the parade. We are subject to time. We cannot revisit the past, save in memory, and we only think we can see the future. We count on current trends and conditions to continue but any disaster or an unforeseen decision on the part of someone else can alter our future in a second. We can only decide and act in the now.

That doesn't mean that the past should be forgotten. We can learn from the past, provided we draw the proper lessons. Often we are too focused on specifics rather than principles. We try to avoid painful or unpleasant situations we encountered before, not considering whether it was the situation itself or our reaction to it that made it so bad. I've seen that happen to successful men, who, when hit by chronic disease that can't be outwitted, outspent or intimidated, simply despair. If we let an adverse situation paralyze us with fear or drive us mad with rage or overwhelm us with sorrow, maybe what we should take from that is that we need to learn and exercise self-control. Or the lesson to be learned might be that we need to see an obstacle as an opportunity to try something new. Edison tried nearly 100 different materials before he found the one that worked best as the filament for his light bulb. He didn't treat each unsuccessful attempt as a failure but as accumulating data on what didn't work.

Even previous successes can trip us up. We may get cocky or superstitious. We try to reproduce our past triumphs or simply continue to do what worked before, never considering that different circumstances demand different tactics. For instance, a lot of businesses get successful and start multiplying locations. As they do they bring in more income and their stock price rises. But they can't expand forever. I remember when 7-11 convenience stores became so numerous that you couldn't travel more than 5 or 6 blocks in my hometown without seeing one. Over-saturation led to bankruptcy and buyout. Not everything that led you to success will keep you successful. Being able to discern what to keep and what to change is key to staying successful.

So neither worshiping nor mourning the past is wise. What is it about the future that keeps us from living in the now? Pretty much the same positive and negative emotions that ensnare us in the past--except that the future has not yet been written. We rarely have enough data to construct more than a rudimentary picture of what the future will bring. We will awaken--unless we don't. We will go to our job--unless our job or our company goes away. There are so many factors that could change that the future is largely fantasy. We project onto its blank canvas our dreads and dreams.

Jesus said, "Do not worry about tomorrow." He didn't say not to plan because he also spoke of kings planning to go to war or vineyard owners planning to build towers and how they must count the cost. It is prudent to plan for what is foreseeable. On the other hand, in the parable of the rich fool, Jesus warns against trusting in purely materialistic plans, because we never know when we will die. Planning is good but don't live in the future. Now is the time to be prepared for whatever is God's will.

Living in the now has a bad connotation. It has come to mean living without considering the consequences of one's current actions. Obviously this is not what Jesus means. He is warning us against worrying overmuch, not about what is likely to happen but what might happen. The human imagination has a capacity for being able to spin out some truly horrific scenarios of what might possibly happen to us. If we start cataloging all that might go wrong, we will be paralyzed. Likewise if we bask in the imagined glory of grandiose things not yet accomplished, we may miss opportunities facing us right now. It's like being so intent on looking at your destination on a map, that you don't watch the road.

When our family went to the UK and Ireland for our 19th wedding anniversary, we had a lot of problems with the flights. The now defunct airline that flew us from Miami to Gatwick Airport, near London, was late, and so we missed our connecting flight to Ireland. Getting another flight was a nightmare because it turns out a lot of Brits go to the Emerald Isle for the weekend much like Miami tourists visit the Keys. We had hotel reservations and plans for seeing Dublin. We had to give that up and take whichever flight next landed anywhere in Ireland to get to the next leg of our trip. We ended up in a charming little hotel in Cork, ate in an authentic Irish pub, saw a nearly 2000 year old ring fort in Clonakilty and a small collection of local animals, such as adult deer spotted like American fawns, each with their English and Gaelic name on a sign. It was a delightful, unexpected and relaxing way to start our vacation. Had we stuck to our plans, we'd have missed it--and probably have spent a night in the Gatwick airport.

Another way to miss present delights is to nurse grudges from and regrets over the past. As Alzheimer's disease progresses, and recent memories fade, people travel back in time. But working in nursing homes, I have met a few people who deliberately live in the past in order to gripe over some slight or pick at the scab of an unfortunate event or decision that's older than I am. The staying power of the loss of a loved one or a major tragedy is understandable. But just as often it's an old family feud over some forgotten insult or the sting of some jerk getting away with something at work for a company that doesn't exist anymore. Sometimes, when they bring it up every time you see them, you want to shake them and say "Get over it!"--were that not considered abusive rather than therapeutic (for the patient, not you, the listener) and in reality it's a sad waste of time.

How do we live in the now in the Christian sense? First, stop thinking of the present as a way station between the past and the future. The past will be available to you as long as you are you. Unless it contains unique insights or is a recognized source of wonderfully entertaining stories, revisit it only when helpful. The future you will actually live through will never be exactly the same as the one lives in your head. Unless you savor irony, don't pay it much mind. The present is much more worthy of your attention. It's the only point in time in which you can definitely make a difference.

Secondly, put away the phone or iPod or game controller occasionally. I don't know precisely when it became acceptable to ignore the live people around you in favor of colorful electrons but the person who never looks up from his or her phone is becoming a stock character in comedies. Look for such inattention to one's environment to become a major contributing factor in the deaths of people on CSI, Bones and slasher films. Sadly, it's rooted in the truth. I've seen people in restaurants choose texting over rapidly congealing food. Heck, I've been that person. Not only can the text wait; it's unlikely to be as memorable as a really good meal. When was the last time you said, "Boy, I had a really good time texting last week at that new eatery in Key West?" Don't let virtual reality veto real life.

Thirdly, practice the presence of God. This refers to the compilation of letters and conversations of the 17th century Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence. He tried to be aware of God's presence with him always. You may or may not want to try conversing with God continuously as Lawrence did but you can try to remind yourself often that all you see, every person and creature, is God's creation. You can seek to see his hand in everything. Our lives are so busy and so much of them takes place in man-made environments that we lack the sense of being surrounded by and a part of God's creation, something people used to find natural. I notice that when people lose their faith in God it is usually because they are too immersed in the follies and outrages of humanity, coupled with a very selective view of nature. Atheists try to use the problem of evil to disprove God, as if religion ignores rather than engages with evil, Christianity most profoundly. Evil originates with humans. Remove God and evil remains. All you've taken away is its meaning and hope of a remedy. It's a distorted view, one so limited that people cannot thrive and barely survive under its constraints.

We view God through the corrective lens of Jesus Christ, his beloved Son, his love made incarnate. Viewing the world this way is like remembering to put on your glasses so you see what is really there, all of it, in all its color, sharpness and detail. Yes, some of it is disturbing but it is possible to find its meaning through the eyes of faith. For example, excretions are gross but looked at medically, they are the way the body expels what it would be poison to retain. Generally speaking, the uglier the body part, the more vital it is, for maintaining life or maybe creating life. Pain is necessary to tell us something needs attention, like damage or sometimes, new birth. Keeping God in mind, seeing the world through his eyes, sensing his presence in the present, seeking his meaning in this moment, can free us from the tyranny of the unforgiving past and the uncertain future. Taking time to meditate helps but then it's out of the pit-stop and back into the race. So try paying attention to life. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. It's being aware of things like breathing and karma. For Christians it is being aware of creation, of the image of God in humanity, of the subtle way sin distorts it, of the fact that God still loves us and creation, of the fact that Christ died to restore it, and of his Spirit at work in us and all things for good. It's not just feeling the pain but the promise. It is seeing in the crucifixion the seeds of resurrection. It's being aware of what is passing and what, or rather, who is eternal. It is participating in the Great Dance, as C. S. Lewis put it, the give and take, the offer and acceptance, the call and response.

We can never be cognizant of all of this all the time but we can increase our awareness of it. We can stop to take a breath, get our bearings, appreciate our current vantage point. We can stop trying to be God and start trying to be his eyes and ears and hands in every situation. We can stop trying to use God for our benefit and start letting him use us for the benefit of all. We can take ourselves off autopilot and take in the scenery along the way. The present is just that--a gift that we can both appreciate and enjoy using. And the best way we can use it is as a way of saying "thank you" to the Giver of all good things.

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