Hey, it’s me Mark!
So this guy Richard Rohr says, “To be present is to know what you need to know in the moment. To be present to something is to allow the moment, the person, the idea, or the situation to influence you and even change you.”
He’s a little hippy-dippy for me a lot of the time, but I think he’s nailed it here.
What do you need to do next week? Next month? In the next six months? Is there a project at work looming? Does your son need braces? Do you have a test coming up?
What is something you regret? How about that time you were embarrassed? Have you ever had a triumph that you revisit from time to time for ego polishing purposes?
It is easy to get pulled out of the present. Fear of the future, anticipation, regret, or reminiscence can draw us away from what we’re doing. They can steal our attention.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong about not being in the present, but it can easily become a preoccupation. We can find ourselves spending more and more time in the past of the future.
When I was growing up, my parents probably took about a hundred pictures of me. I might have ten of these somewhere. My sister just had a baby a few months ago. I think they filled up their hard drive with pictures already. With the advent of digital photography, we can capture the present before it has a chance to slip into the past. We can store it and catalogue it and sort it into Facebook albums so we never lose it. We can check back in on the day we spent at the beach for the rest of our lives.
What a waste.
Please stop doing this.
(Fine, take a few pictures.)
But for the most part, just stay in the present. Why? Well, one small reason is this: Everything happens in the present. Nothing happens in the past or the future. They are either static or unknown. If you don’t remain present, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to do anything.
What about the future? Shouldn’t we plan for that? Shouldn’t we establish some plan to be ready for whatever happens?
At the beginning of an improv scene, you have a choice. You can try to plan out the scene. You can come up with some funny premise and figure out who your character is and how they fit into it. Then you can plan out what your partner will say and do. And then you can come up with some perfect ending. In the time you’ve been doing this, someone else has gotten on stage and begun a completely different scene. You’ve missed your opportunity.
Instead of this, you could just enter the scene. Step forward. Begin. Don’t plan anything out. Just come into the scene and have one single small thing. Improvisers refer to this as “bringing a brick.” When you come into a scene, don’t bring an entire house that you’ve already built. Come in with a brick, and your partner will bring a brick and together you will build a new totally weird house together.
That’s what audiences love to see. Collaboration. Problem-solving.
They love it when one person comes into a scene with a normal red brick. Then the other person brings a giant orange brick with purple polka dots. How do they fit together? What is this house going to look like? Where is it all going? What if one person comes into a scene as a watchmaker and their partner tells them that they’re a heart surgeon?
We can’t know and we’ll never find out if the improvisers get too far ahead of themselves. The only way this house gets built is if they stay focused and disciplined, if they both stay present and listen to each other and slowly, brick by brick, the house is discovered. That is when improv is most successful. Instead of trying to figure out what the next thing that’s going to happen in your scene is, just “allow the moment, the person, the idea, or the situation to influence you and even change you.” It’ll turn out better.
This has taught me a lot about being Catholic as well. I’m a worrier by nature. I’m a planner. I like to know what is going to happen next. I like being in control.
But you can’t be charitable to someone in the past or the future. You can’t. If you weren’t charitable to them in the past, you can’t go back and change it. It already happened. Am I explaining how the past works? Yikes. Moving on. You can only do good in the present. When someone is hurting and needs compassion, help them in the present.
Pretty much all the corporeal works of mercy need to happen in the present. Feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Visit the imprisoned? Present.
I did something nice for someone once. Do you know how many times I think back on that? Do you know how frequently I dwell there instead of going out and doing some other nice thing? I could be taking care of people now, but instead I’m soothing my guilty conscience by assuring myself that I was kind before and that is good enough.
I plan to help people. I’ll volunteer at a soup kitchen. I’ll go and read to the eldery. I’ll be a missionary to a poor country. I’ll build a church, a library, a school, and a barn or something. I’ll get good and dirty helping others. And do you know what? Thinking about all the things I’m going to do really makes me feel good! Future me is a really nice guy. People like future me. The future poor people that future me helps are always coming up to future me and future thanking him for all the future help with their future buildings. In fact, all this future gratitude makes present me feel so good that it assuages any nagging feelings I might have about not giving enough of myself.
It’s fine to plan to do good things in the future. But it’s better to do them in the present, and then promptly forget about them. Just do good.
Living in the past or the future generally just leads me to feel disappointed in the present. The present never seems to have the same golden shine as the past. The future always holds more promise.
Now I’m not saying to never think about the past or plan for the future. Remembering stuff is nice. Planning things helps. I’m simply saying that I think its been getting out of whack lately. We’re spending too much time in time zones other than the present. And even worse, when we are present, we’re not really present.
I’m talking about movies. TV. Video games. Books. Magazines. Internets. Flickering screens and things of that ilk. We’ve gotten really good at distracting ourselves. But why? Why are we so averse to just existing in the here and now?
Well, I’ll tell you, when I do manage to find moments where I am present, do you know what I find there?
In the Old Testament, God reveals his name: I Am.
Not “I Was” or “I Will Be.”
God exists in the present. He is a God of now. If we dwell anytime else, we’ll miss him. He is here with us. If we can teach ourselves to remain in the present and listen for him, we will find him. He can love us now, not in the past or the future. It can only happen in the present.