The only time that seems safe to me is the very present. Now.
I know we can learn from the past. That's one of the highest commodities of history - learning and growing from the past. In looking back, we see God's faithfulness to us personally over the years. God even commands us to reflect, to recall our past and how He has been faithful. He tells the Israelites over and over again to remember... Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. (Deuteronomy 15:15) It seems they were always building monuments in order to remember God's faithfulness.
But remembering the past can be a dangerous place to sit for too long. I start to recollect otherwise forgotten and forgiven sins done against me (or sins I committed against another). Or I remember how sweet life used to be..usually these recollections take me to the newlywed years b.c. (before children) Like most nostalgic moments, I forget the cockroaches, tight budgets, and that miserable semester of Non-Euclidean Geometry. I just remember the simplicity, the SLEEP...and a spirit of discontent rises in me.
I'm not the first one to do this. The Israelites were rescued by God from tortuous conditions in Egypt and afterwards, their memories warped as their hunger grew: We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. (Numbers 11:5)
Their moaning and complaining went on so much that God finally gave them what they wanted - meat. So much so that it was coming out their noses. Similarly, if I look back so fondly at my early years of marriage, before children, and resort to complaining about today, might God someday give me what I want? Peace and quiet...until I hate the very thought of it.
Just the other day, we were at a Fourth of July picnic. There was an older couple, probably retired, sitting behind us at their perfect picnic meal. While we ate chips straight from the bag, they had a tablecloth, a table, the perfect picnic basket, cloth napkins, real silverware, and glass bowls of fried chicken and corn. Between the chaos of chasing little ones, I observed them... observing others. When they ate, it was quiet between the two of them. And it appeared to be lonely. They couldn't have missed us, we were loud and our two-year old threw his beloved stuffed animal into the air and it landed next to their apple pie. I wondered if they disapproved of us or if they were thinking of days gone by, when the kids were young and they held sweaty, sticky arms close. Perhaps that's why older folks often tell us younger folks to savor the moments, reminding us that it'll all be over before we know it. And us younger folks tend to think in our minds, "Yeah, right." I know of one young mother who actually said it out loud, turning to an older man and replying, "It isn't going by quickly at all. It's terribly slow! And it's usually covered in peach yogurt or fingerpaints!" But I wonder if he wanted to reply that he'd trade it in a second, to be away from old age and loss.
Funny how recalling the past or dreaming about the future can be the perfect breeding ground for discontent.
Looking forward to the future can also be a dangerous mind game for me. Dreams, goals, plans, aspirations are all admirable. But the future is also full of unknowns, which isn't very comforting to a control freak like myself. I start to get a bit put out. When I see a crack dealin' teenager on TV, I immediately start to imagine my own children selling crack. And I panic...start manipulating and controlling others around me out of fear, laying down ridiculous rules for my kids and myself.
So, whether you are looking backwards at what you used to be or have, or whether you are looking forward to what you want to be or have, if discontentment settles in and wraps its weedy arms around your spirit, you will always be left wanting.
The secret balm for this malady is not a secret at all. We all know that usually, the grass is no greener on the other side. But if we are tempted to peek a bit too far over the fence, just to make sure it's no greener, the Apostle Paul reminds us of the secret to being content:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:11b-13, my emphasis)
The secret is Jesus.
His very life in us, whispering "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." We have only to listen and abide here, where every need is met. (See Hebrews 13:5) Thankfulness abounds instead of complaints, and rest is...well...restful.
Remembering is precious. And dangerous. That's why I watch home videos with caution.
Anticipating the future is precious too. And dangerous. That's why I don't like to window shop.
But both are important parts of a healthy, rich life - remembering and dreaming.
The key to remaining content with the Now is in letting Him who strengthens do what He does best - strengthen. As we fix our eyes on Him, the present moments find their place in time. He sees the beginning from the end and the end from the beginning, and this moment is His too. He wants to be the animator of our timeline, and when He is allowed to be our focus, our strength, we rest in the present. Thankfulness is suddenly contagious and glory is His.
Today, I'm doing my best not to peek at greener pastures, but to allow myself the opportunity to recall the past, dream about the future, and savor the present.