Sunday, July 31, 2011

Living Within the Present

If you're anything like me, you may have a soft spot for television shows dealing with the topic of time travel. I still enjoy watching classic Twilight Zone episodes because of the high quality of storytelling usually found in those programs--and the time travel ones are often some of the best. I have to admit, there's another program called Dr. Who from BBC which we also enjoy watching as a family. The truth of the matter is, however, that we're all time travelers. It's just that our traveling tends to leave us all a bit the worse for wear--unless your a "Time Lord" from Dr. Who.

Lately, I'm noticing that it's increasingly hard to concentrate or feel a part of what I am presently doing.  My mind is always racing ahead to some other activity or project.  I listened to a strange movie trailer this morning for something called Suing the Devil.  While the movie might not exactly be my cup of tea, I did like Satan's dialogue towards the end of the clip where he expounds upon the wonders of all the technical distractions he's created: the noise of modern life.  

It's hitting on a point I raised in an earlier in blog entry I wrote called "The Connection Illusion," but it bears repeating.  With all of us becoming so accustomed to the electronic distractions of daily living, I wonder if it subtly changes our mental perspective, contributing to the difficulty of focusing upon our present?  In addition, I also fault our cultural inclination to schedule our time to such a degree--especially for children.  Kids, in particular, need free time to play and enjoy childhood.  This sort of soccer mom scheduling may seem good at the time, but it simply burdens children with living on a schedule much more than should be necessary.  A better approach for young people may be what a college friend did for (or to) me once while riding a Washington State Ferry back from Bremerton.  She simply took my watch.  It was quite effective for getting my mind off time and any pressing engagements--for a while, at least.

It's interesting to reflect upon our vacation in the mountains last month and remember what it was like to temporarily abandon virtually all handheld electronics--with the exception of my daughter's Kindle.  Time did seem to slip by at a slower rate, yet we accomplished more.  Even there, though, there was still very much the sense  that time was slipping away, but it was less pronounced than a typical day in the city.  What I encountered in the forest was perhaps more akin to the joy C.S. Lewis described in Surprised by Joy.  It's the savoring of the moment.

 The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.... I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic... in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.

In my mind, then, living within the present is the only way to truly prepare for the future that awaits us.  This living within the present requires us to focus upon it, not watch it out of our peripheral consciousness as we stare intently at our iPhone.  It requires focus and concentration, as well as perhaps a conscious trimming of those distractions around us.  

Even when we return to places we remember fondly, it's seldom like no time has passed in the interim.  It's difficult to reclaim a true sense of how a particular place struck us at a particular past point.  Time changes everything--including our perceptions.  This dimension of time is what I wrote about in a 2002 essay for Episcopal Church News entitled A Week on Whidbey Island Shows Changes, Eternal Truths.  It's not that we can't remember the past with clarity, but we can't return or reclaim it; it can't be re-lived.  Here's how I put it in that article for the Episcopal Church News.

When we recently had the opportunity to spend a few days at Seattle Pacific University’s Camp Casey, situated on the Admiralty Inlet side of Whidbey Island across the choppy strait from Port Townsend, it reminded me of some experiences I had working there as a college student during the summer of 1988. I decided to take my daughter Sarah on a walk one cool afternoon along some of the forest trails to the north of the conference center grounds. The path wound its familiar way up among the wind-swept evergreens and the occasional madrona.  We paused to explore an old fort from the 1890s; its once busy walkways and concrete bunkers now quiet and much overgrown with blackberry bushes and tall weeds, and its stories and pictures slowly fading from collective memory.  (Fort Casey State Park itself lies a mile or two to the south.) 

We then proceeded on along the needle-lined trail, heading up a gradually leveling incline with the forest on our right and a cliff overlooking the crashing surf some twenty feet off to our left. Making certain that Sarah was safely standing on the trail, I carefully stepped towards the left, searching for the place where I recalled having devotions from time to time during the summer of 1988. I found what appeared to be the right location, but its look was quite different now. Instead of the broad sandy cliff face with a fairly clear path to its center that I remembered, the cliff now seemed much higher and closer to the trail. Not being particularly comfortable with heights (just try to get me on the 4-mile Astoria-Megler Bridge again!), I returned to the path, and we resumed our trek to the north for a time until the trail faded and then disappeared entirely among the grass and trees.  We plodded back to Camp Casey to watch and wait for the late afternoon’s arrival of the grazing deer.

It occurred to me recently that this experience was instructional in a spiritual sense. When we return to places from our past, they frequently seem smaller--not more expansive. It’s something akin to visiting your hometown for the first time after being away in college (depending on where you're from). This homecoming is reminiscent of times long gone and the community may stand smaller than recalled.  So, this experience of returning to a place I held close from younger days was odd in that it did not conform to the usual and comfortable perceptions. The vantage point from which I recalled reading and gazing upon the gray heaving waves below had changed a great deal over the past decade.  Considering the winter storms that lash Whidbey Island, that alteration of scenery and environment should not have been so surprising. 

What it does remind one of, however, is that while much concerning us personally, and the landscape surrounding us for a time, undergoes a continual "sea change" or evolution, our God "does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17).  Instead, He is the same yesterday as He will be tomorrow. In a time of national crisis and an uneasy future, there is something comforting in acknowledging this simple, yet profound, attribute of our God. No matter what changes here, we hold that what is most important stands eternal, and that we need not be pulled-down by the continual disintegration and moral entropy surrounding our lives from all sides. 

Like the Eagle Cap Wilderness river photo I captured above, the flowing, rushing water is constantly changing; the river, then, becomes an excellent metaphor for time.  As Plato quoted Heraclitis,"You can't enter the same river twice."  The contemplative life seems to offer refuge from this cultural scourge.  Reading Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, for instance, doesn't paint the picture of someone obsessed with the passage of time--or "multitasking," which just means learning to do simultaneous activities poorly.  It seems to show someone living each day to its fullness for God.

I wish you well in learning how to be a good steward of your own time, both savoring and learning from it,  as we traverse our allotted span of time here.  After all, we look forward to living the eternal present someday in heaven.

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