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The Present is Always Better than the Future

Written by Joe Pettit

Claims by spiritual writers, preachers and others that we should try to live in the present moment have never really carried much weight with me…until recently.  You see, I always thought that asking a person to live in the present moment required asking them to turn their minds and their hearts away from all of the ongoing, future-oriented, projects that form such a large part of their identities and consume so much of their time.  Depending on my mood, life has either been a work of art in progress, a battle not yet won, or just a painful and muddy obstacle course that one must get through.  All of these images imply that the most important realities in our lives lie in the future – the work of art completed, the battle won, the obstacle course finished.

I have also been committed to the idea that my relationships (husband, father, professor, friend, consumer, etc), my communities, my governments, and my world can all be much better than they currently are, and I want to stay committed to working for even small improvements in all of these dimensions of my life.  Suggestions that I live for the present moment seemed to imply that transformation and improvement are at best secondary concerns, concerns that I might even be able to ignore in my efforts to focus on the present.

Living in the present moment seemed to require giving up on the future.

I now think I was wrong.  The only worth, the only goodness, that can ever be a part of my life exists only in the present moment because the only goodness that I can experience is found in the choices I make.  As I understand them, choices are good, or more accurately “better,” only because the source of all goodness – I call this source God –  “sees,” or “judges” the choices to be good (or better than other choices).  More directly, I understand my choices as opportunities to reveal the reality of goodness, and so the reality of God, in the world.

To understand life as an opportunity for revelation is to live in the present moment.

Of course, I can also make bad choices; I can “cover up” the goodness that would otherwise be present in the world.  My bad choices are thus not merely rejections of goodness, rejections of God, but they actively conspire to hide goodness, to hide God, from myself and others.  In the present moment, I am implicated in the Infinite, whether I like it or not.  As a result, an imperative emerges – Pay Attention!

So what about the future?  To begin with the obvious, there is no goodness in the future because it does not yet exist.  When what is now future comes to be, it will be experienced as present.  Because the future does not exist, it cannot be the source of the real goodness of my choices.  To pretend otherwise is not only confused, it is idolatrous.

More directly, the future is part of the present as a result of my choices.  It is the future that is made possible because of my choices, and which future I choose to create matters very much.  In other words, it is good that I make choices that contribute to my becoming a better husband, father, professor, friend, etc.  It is good that I make choices that take the next step in making my communities better, my governments more just, etc.  But the goodness of those choices does not depend on the success of my endeavors; the goodness is not postponed in some way until the endeavors are complete.  The goodness of the choices exists only in the choosing.

Does this mean that life is only about experiencing the goodness or badness of one’s choices?  To reach this conclusion does seem hopelessly egocentric.  Can we not also experience the goodness of others, along with the many other forms of goodness in the world?  Of course we can, but even in our experience of the goodness of others, we cannot avoid ourselves.  We still must choose to be open to the revelation of goodness, of God, that is found in other people, and in the world.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy of any person’s life is the failure to be open to such immediate revelation.  I am confident that this is so in my own life.

I have misunderstood the future and so failed to understand the present.  Worrying about phantom future goods, I have failed to see the good to be experienced right in front of me.

I am working to change that.