One reoccurring theme for me over the past year has been the categories of past, present, and future. (No, I haven’t been visited by any Christmas ghosts!) Maybe it is because this year has been a year of transition for me: among other things, we bought a house, moved to St. Petersburg, and I transitioned to working from home. I have thought a lot about what has gotten me to this point, where the heck am I, and what does the future hold?
In another sense, these three categories have also come to represent three primary areas where I am trying to learn the contemplative practice of detachment. For many, the past can represent either moments of regret or a propensity to live in the past – an unhealthy attachment to a phase of life that has come and gone. The present can be full of many distractions and demands: bills, errands, projects, and chores – all of which can rob us of the deeper reality and relationships before us. We should not let our life be defined as the sum total of all these day-to-day minutiae, though many do. While the future may hold the potential fulfillment of our hopes and dreams, it can also create unrealistic expectations, which cause stress. It is one thing to have goals and dreams for the future; it is another to live in the future with the pressure that these goals must be fulfilled or else life will be a disappointment. I love to travel to exotic places. But I have also realized that I can get so caught up in planning, hoping, and dreaming about the next trip that my daily reality becomes somewhat of a bore – this isn’t healthy!
While the present can certainly be filled with any number of distractions, part of the contemplative life is to live fully in the present. Living in the present moment is being able to give yourself fully to those around you or to the task at hand, all the while being attuned to how God is at work in the present moment, because that is where we meet God.
Father Arico of Contemplative Outreach puts it like this:
If you are thinking about an event in the past you give yourself the wonderful gift of guilt, anger or joy. Guilt at what you may have done to somebody, anger at what somebody may have done to you or joy, thinking about the good times. If you are thinking about an event in the future, you give yourself a gift of fear, anxiety or expectation.
It is an odd way of stating this: giving yourself the gift of guilt or fear. But I think what is being conveyed is that when we spend time living in the past or the future, we are choosing to give ourself something, be it guilt, joy, or anxiety. There are moments where those gifts may be appropriate. But when we dwell on the past or future – or focus on the wrong things in the present – we miss the gifts before us in each moment of the present.
Personally, this hasn’t always been easy for me. But as the calendar turns to a new year, I am trying to be more fully present in each moment the next year holds for me.