Around this time of year, it always feels like there’s a lot of “looking ahead” going on. Students are completing their academic years and they are looking ahead to whatever comes next. If they are graduates, then they are looking ahead to their careers. If they are advancing to a new grade level, then they are looking ahead to the challenges and opportunities that will come with it. Seminary graduates are looking ahead to their upcoming ordinations. The old model, which is quickly disappearing, is that a candidate would graduate from seminary in May, then become ordained a deacon in June and become ordained a priest in December. Families are looking ahead to summer vacations. Football fans are looking ahead to the start of next football season. I just received my notice from Notre Dame informing me that the times for all 2023 home games have been announced and I should make my plans to travel to South Bend right away! Even here at St. John’s, we’re looking ahead to next year and our parish pilgrimage to the British Isles. We’re looking ahead to our ministry fair and our patronal feast day. We’re looking ahead to next Advent and Christmas. We’re looking ahead to our outing to see the Arizona Cardinals play the Atlanta Falcons. We’re constantly looking ahead.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking ahead. It’s always good to be prepared. Our scouting troops who charter with us at St. John’s would certainly agree. The Scout Motto, after all, is “Be prepared.” Looking ahead can help us to plan and to know what steps we need to take to make our goals become realities. If I do want to travel to South Bend for a game, for instance, I’ll have to have transportation and lodging figured out. This is in addition to game tickets. If I’m missing any of those important details, I’m going to have a pretty difficult trip. Or what if I get there and I run out of money? That won’t be any fun, either. So planning is important and it is good. At the same time, it is important to remain mindful of the present. We do not want to become so focused on looking ahead that we ignore the beauty in the here and now.
I love dogs. I’ve had dogs my whole life. And every time one of my dogs dies, I dread the thought of getting another one. Because I’m so focused on looking ahead to that day 10 or 15 years from now when my best furry pal will leave me behind. But when I allow myself to be present with the idea of having a dog, I realize dogs bring me so much joy and they make my life so much better. Thinking ahead to the day my four-legged companion dies is robbing joy from my present and it is robbing us bonding time and play time and time to maximize our time together right now. I do dread the day my dog dies. But instead of focusing on that day (who knows when or how it will happen?), it is much healthier for me to think about being on a walk with her TODAY. About playing fetch with her TONIGHT. About scratching her head or rubbing her tummy RIGHT NOW. There is plenty of time for me to worry about her not being with me anymore. But if I maximize our time together NOW, then I’ll have far more (and perhaps far better) memories of her for my whole life.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us to think of the birds in the air or the flowers in the field when we find ourselves worrying about looking too far ahead. “Can any of you, by worrying, add a single hour to your lifespan?” he asks his disciples (Matt. 6:27). He tells us, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:34). This is very important advice for us to consider. There certainly is a difference between being prepared and being overly worried. This is especially true when we place our worry on things over which we have no control. Does it do any good to worry about whether it will rain today? No, not really. Does that mean I shouldn’t be prepared and maybe carry an umbrella in my car? No, that’s probably still a good idea.
If I’m planning for a trip, it’s probably not terribly helpful for me to just throw a bunch of stuff in my suitcase and hope for the best. I probably ought to think out what I will need. Am I going hiking? Am I going to the beach? Am I playing golf? Are my wife and I going to a fancy dinner one night? I probably want to pack accordingly, knowing that if I do forget something, there are probably stores in the area where I can pick up a missed toiletry or two. I also don’t want to pack too much stuff. So much stuff that I have to lug around a heavy suitcase, only to not use half the stuff I brought. It’s a good thing to plan properly, and it’s ok if we don’t plan absolutely everything. And while I’m away, I should probably leave some time in my schedule for downtime. Maybe some time for something unexpected. Give myself permission to simply let things be.
Living in the present helps us to enjoy the time we have. We have so many distractions that keep us from the present. We have phones and televisions and radios and computers. We have so much that wants our time. It’s not that those things are bad. They certainly make our lives better in many ways. But we don’t want them to get in the way of us enjoying the gift of presence in the present. A number of times, I have noticed that my wife and I will have our TV on and we’ll each have our phones in our hands, scrolling mindlessly. When this happens, we’re not fully paying attention to the TV and we’re not fully paying attention to the phone and we’re certainly not paying full attention to each other. This isn’t to suggest we shouldn’t have entertainment options in our lives, and it isn’t to suggest we need to be stuck together at the hip. But it is important for us to be mindful of the time that we do get to spend together. We don’t always need some other form of mental stimulation. And we don’t always need to worry about what we’re going to do on the weekend. Instead, time can be so much better spent if we allow ourselves to be fully present with each other and simply allow ourselves to just be.
Ability to dwell in the present is a dying art. Yet it is so important. We don’t always have to have FOMO (fear of missing out). We don’t always have to be ready for every single unexpected problem. Let’s be realistic, most of the time we’re powerless to do anything about most problems anyway. If traffic is slow, it (usually) isn’t our fault. And there (usually) isn’t anything we can do to get out of it. If our flight is delayed, it (usually) isn’t because of something we did. And unless we’re working for the airline or the FAA, we probably can’t fix it. That doesn’t mean we can’t feel frustrated about those kinds of things, but, as Jesus said, worrying about things isn’t going to make them any better. The gift of presence is such a wonderful gift and the gift of the present can be equally wonderful. It takes practice, but when we are present and we enjoy the present, we can enhance our lives and our relationships. And that is what God wants for all of us.