Recently I watched a show on public television about time. As the physicists explained what science can tell us about the past, present, and future, I began to wonder if Henry David Thoreau didn’t have it right when he wrote, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in” around 150 years ago. He went on: “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains” (Walden; or, Life in the Woods). I like the image of mercurial time flowing across immutable eternity.
To me it’s strange to think that while we humans are subject to time, God is not. For God, there is no past or future (those physicists might argue that the future does not even exist or is, at best, only theoretical). In eternity, everything is in the present because time doesn’t exist. Once I read somewhere that it’s as if everything that has ever happened or will ever happen is in a book, and although we experience the book one page at a time, in order, from beginning to end, God can open the book and turn to whatever page he likes because it is all under his authority. We can remember the events of the past, but we cannot relive them; we can speculate about the future, but we cannot go there. We must experience life one day—one moment—at a time.
Living in the present is difficult. There are things we might regret saying or doing, but they are in the past and we can’t change them. There are things that haven’t happened yet that we might be anxious about, but they are in the future and we can’t control them. Why is it so hard to anchor ourselves to the here and now? I think such a thing requires discipline. Whenever I realize I am drifting away, either backward or forward, I need to focus on the moment I’m living, right now. This requires that I become mindful of where my thoughts are taking me and that I have the desire to experience life anew, not just relive what I’ve already done or imagine what I might do. Such a thing also requires courage. We don’t know what will happen as a result of our actions or decisions, so we do the best we can with what we do know, and we leave the rest up to God. So such a thing also requires faith. We have to be confident that whatever comes next, whether we are directly or indirectly responsible for it, we will be able to accept it and move on. We also need to be able to believe that if something bad happens, in some way we can benefit from the experience, even if only by surviving it.
We are more than the choices we make, but those choices are significant. We might look back and wonder how we could have been so wrong about decisions we’ve made. But we need to remember that we are constantly being shaped by the moments we live, so that person who made a certain choice in the past might make a very different choice now. When we try to look forward, to imagine all the possible outcomes of a decision, there are many scenarios; when we look backward, there is only one. We have to be gentle with ourselves and forgive ourselves for what have turned out to be bad decisions made with good intentions. Regret is a powerful force that tries to keep us in the past.
That doesn’t mean we have to forget the past or ignore the future. The past is not our enemy but our teacher. We all need to recall yesterday so we can enjoy the pleasant memories and learn from our mistakes, and we need to plan for tomorrow with the expectation that we will continue our journey. But the time to actually live our lives is today, this moment, because now is the only time we have.