Seizing the Present
Poets and prophets, ancient and modern, declare that we are profoundly unaware of the present. The here and now, the place that we always are, they duly note, is the place that we are least likely to see for what it fully is. Blaise Pascal, a mathematician living four centuries before multi-tasking was praised and apps helped manage time, keenly diagnosed this peculiar human condition. In his master work, the Pensees, he articulates our seeming lack of interest in the present:
“Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.”
The present is never our end. Living behind cameras and gadgets that record my present, often out of the fear of forgetting it in the future, the thought strikes me as one I ought to consider. Though we hope and toil for life, though I may have captured the moment or smile on camera, I never fully saw it. And moreover, looking back most of us can readily recall a particularly squandered time in our lives, a time we now wish we were more fully attentive, more fully present. Truly, the now of life is far more significant and subtly hidden than we often realize.
In the play Our Town, Thornton Wilder brilliantly depicts the magnitude of the present, the fullness of each moment amidst the fleeting nature of time in our lives. Emily, a young mother who died in childbirth, is given the opportunity to go back and observe a single day in her life. She is advised to choose an “ordinary” day—for even the least important day will be important enough—the dead remind her. True enough, Emily makes her choice and quickly finds herself overwhelmed by it. Her ensuing lines are Wilder’s caution:
“I can’t go on. It goes too fast… I didn’t realize. All that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.
Goodbye, Goodbye, world… Mama and Papa. Goodbye clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
Upon returning, Emily wonders if anyone ever realizes life while they actually live it—life as it is, “every, every minute.” The response she receives is grim. “No. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.”(1)
Where this may all easily be couched as a saccharine moralism to seize the day and live life to the fullest, carpe diem or yolo, we might inquire why the present brims with significance, lest it lead us merely to the Epicurean’s philosophy, observed by King Solomon, cautioned against by Jesus, noted by cultural prophets, and largely embraced, though we still seem to miss the thing in front of us: “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”(2) While Epicurus did not have in mind the self-indulgence that this idea would come to bear, the materialist’s call for happiness in the present is heightened only by the sobering impermanence of life that is only material. Or perhaps the present holds much more still.
C.S. Lewis once asked, “Where, except in the present, can the Eternal be met?” This, he argues, is why the present is so profoundly important. God is always nearest to us “now.” Where Jesus says, “Follow me,” where he pleads, “Come to me,” where he insists the kingdom is present among us, and bids us to come, take, and eat, there is an urgency in his voice that ushers us into time with him now. Now is where he asks us to draw near; now is when we decide again to follow or not to follow; now is where we rejoice in this day he made. So indeed, seize the day, you only live once, and the promises of the one who came in the fullness of time are boldly written upon this very moment.
(1) As quoted by Barry Morrow in Heaven Observed (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), 321.
(2) Cf. Ecclesiastes 8:15, Luke 12:13-21.
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