Rarely are we present where we are. Because our brains have evolved to include the capacity for memory and anticipatory awareness, actually being in the present is much more difficult that it might seem.
Although there are several different emotional postures that might keep us from living fully in the present, one of the strongest would have to be a certain way of remembering and relating to the past that we usually call nostalgia. Nostalgia is fine and good when it simply involves remembering the past with fondness and gratitude. Often, however, nostalgia can become excessive and can keep us from experiencing the gifts of the present by convincing us that happiness was in the past and we missed it.
One of the things I have learned about myself is that I get the most nostalgic about the past when I am the most anxious about the future. Anxiety has a way of distorting our memory of the past, creating a sense of feeling exiled from an illusory golden age back then. One of the things I have a constant sense of anxiety about are my kids. Usually it is a barely noticeable, low-grade anxious hum in the back of my mind, yet sometimes it blares loudly enough that it drowns out everything else. A couple weeks ago was a particularly intense time of worry for me related to a school issue with one of the girls, and during that time I came across some old photos of the girls from when they were toddlers. “Those were they days,” I thought, “I would give anything to be able to go back to then. It was so simple then. They were so cute, there was nothing to worry about then, everything was just perfect. If only they could stay young forever! If only we could have lived like that forever!”
Of course, that is a very one-sided recollection of past events, as I would realize after more sober reflection. I can remember when they were that age thinking to myself how I couldn’t wait for them to get old enough to be able to feed themselves, sleep through the night, handle all their own bathroom business, etc. My initial emotional trip down memory lane also excluded how difficult life was then with full-time grad school and a job and very little money.
Like I said, anxiety in the present distorts our remembrance of the past. This psychological insight is brilliantly illustrated in the central narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures, the exodus out of Egypt. You may recall that the people of Abraham were enslaved by the Egyptians for 400 years. For 400 years they were beaten down, oppressed, and exploited. They cried out to God and God saved them from their slavery. Shortly after they escape, they have to face the daunting task of going forward in an uncertain future in an unfamiliar place. Their reaction:
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger.”
Because the Israelites were anxious about the present circumstances, they romanticized their past experience of slavery. They didn’t remember the beatings, the long hours, the humiliation. All they could remember was the meat and bread.
This same dynamic happens over and over again within many of us. We construct an idealized version of the past to help us deal with our catastrophized version of the present. The biggest step in overcoming this barrier to living in the present is to simply become aware that this happens within us. Whenever we find ourselves checking out in the present because we are hung up in wanting to back to the (highly polished and made-over) past we remember, we need to call bullshit on our brains. I’m not normally given to profanity (outside of driving), but that is the best word I know to describe this deceptive mental tendency within us. We create a good deal of suffering for ourselves, and others, when we cannot or will not acknowledge that there is no going back to the past, because in all probability the past we want to go back to never existed.
The invitation of Jesus is that the possibility for living an abundant life is right here, right now, as we seek to follow Him. The good ole days are not behind us. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Our Thursday night study this Fall is based on Brian McLaren’s book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words. This week’s study focuses on the word “here.”