In the late 1960s to the early 1970s when I was a youth, I belonged to a very strict religious organization that prophesized the imminent return of Christ, and the destruction of the United States. I put off pleasure in the present because I hoped to enjoy it in the indefinite future. In other words, I got stuck in the future.
Since that time, I discovered that others in the world are doing the same thing. It’s my guess that many young people who join the Islamic State adhere to that future orientation. Their goal is to go to Muslim Heaven, if they are male, and enjoy the pleasures of seventy-two dark-eyed virgins. Suffering hardship in the present and acting as suicide bombers in fighting for ISIS guarantees them eternal bliss in the future.
Having taught classes to American teens has shown me that a fair number of my students were caught in what one book called the “intense present.” The future was not important to them. Instead, it was more important to live life full-tilt in the now. Their present focus often meant they were extreme risk-takers, indulging their passions in illicit drugs, sex, driving, and other extreme behaviors, with no thought for the consequences in five to ten years. These students were stuck in the present.
Millions of people also get stuck in the past, wishing for a bygone golden era where everyone was more moral and upright than they are today. I’m reminded of a Doonesbury cartoon of an American soldier riding in a military truck in Iraq with a Shia soldier. The Shia soldier talked about his hatred for Sunni Muslims. His memories harken back to the year 661 A.D., when some Sunnis murdered the Shia caliph, Ali. That historic hatred still required retribution in the 21st century in that Iraqi’s eyes.
I also see this fixation with the past during this holiday season, when many people get so caught up with pleasant memories of their childhoods at Christmas. It becomes a time of frantic energy to get all the things done: Baking cookies, decorating the house inside and out, writing Christmas cards, and buying presents. By the time Christmas arrives, these devotees of the past are either exhausted, or depressed, or both. Those who live with these “stuck-in-the-past fanatics” are just hoping Christmas would be over, so their loved one could come back to a more balanced perspective.
Over 3,000 years ago, King Solomon noted this human tendency in the Complete Jewish Bible version of Ecclesiastes 7:10: “Don’t ask why the old days were better than now, because that is a foolish question.”
Wisdom tells us we must come to recognize which orientation we are obsessing on, whether it is the past, the present, or the future.
As you can observe, it is our nature to go to extremes, and to get stuck in one time period or another. In doing so, we miss out on the opportunity to live our lives to the fullest in the present, while drawing on experience from past lessons, and thinking long-term about how we can make the future happier.
J.R.R. Tolkien said it best through the words of Frodo in “The Fellowship of the Ring”: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I”, said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Perhaps it is the hour to realize that being fluid and balanced with our time orientation is the best way to be. It’s time to get unstuck.