By The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, Executive Director
How much more can we take?
We’re in a pandemic. People are divided. Scratch that. People are angrily and violently divided. We’ve been shuttered for ten months. We’re both scared to go out and frustrated and angry at having to stay in. We’ve lost so much! What makes it worse is that we are about to go into a Christmas season where we can’t worship, gather, and celebrate the way it should be.
How much more can we take?
Perhaps that’s the wrong question, although we will keep asking it. Perhaps we should ask, “how do we accept and adapt to what is?”
Samaritan has been a light for people throughout the pandemic and our collective cultural division. We’ve been the place thousands have turned to for help in these times because we help people develop the capacity to adapt to truly tumultuous situations.
What do we do that helps people? We help people change their perceptions and their reactions to what’s taking place. There are a lot of different techniques and approaches we use, depending on the therapist and the client, but they all work on doing one thing—getting us to live in the NOW—in that place where we are aware of, and appreciate, what is rather than what we wish it would be.
Most of us don’t live in the here and now. We live too much in the past. We live in the pains of our past, as the misguided lessons of previous mental and spiritual wounds cause us to act in sometimes self-defeating, other times other-defeating, ways. I know that’s true for me. For a whole collection of reasons from my past I have constant, nagging feelings that people just don’t like me. I’m always surprised when I discover the people do like me. My wounded feelings can tempt me to react in ways that are self-destructive, and I have to constantly let those feelings fade into the past so I can connect with people in the present and live wisely.
We can live too much in the fears and anxieties of the future. Americans are obsessed with the future. Sometimes that’s warranted. Most of the time it’s not. We live in the anxieties of “what if.” Whether it’s the pandemic, the election, the state of the country, the state of the world, or worries over our jobs, our health, our relationships, our success, our failure, . . . our everything.
One of my favorite movie characters of all time is Master Oogway, the wise turtle from the film, Kung Fu Panda. He captured our struggles in one of his quotes: “You are too concerned about what was and what will be.” That describes about 90% of us.
We don’t just live too much in the past and future. We can also live too much in other places. So many people think that if they can just get a new job, move to a new city, move onto a new relationship, then things will get automatically better. In some cases that’s true, but more often what happens is something a pastor said to me after moving to a new church: “I though all my problems were behind me, but I found them already waiting for me in my new office.”
So how do we overcome all of this. Then answer is living into the NOW. I’ll quote Master Oogway again: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift.
That’s why they call it the present.” It’s not just this cartoon character dispensing this wisdom. His wisdom comes from a variety of traditions and fields.
One form of therapy all of our therapists are trained in is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It focuses on retraining us to think in ways that are grounded in what is rather than what our anxieties and worries teach us might be. Those trained in an older form of therapy, Reality Therapy, are trained in immersing clients in focusing on reality rather than imagination. Most other forms of therapy also do this in one form or another, focusing on what our life can be if we’re willing to let go of the past and the future, and reshape ourselves in the NOW.
The more recent focus in therapy on meditation and mindfulness lets the past be the past and the future to be what will be. The concepts of “mindfulness” and “meditation” came to the psycho-therapeutic world out of Buddhist practice, but it’s not as though Christianity hasn’t had a similar focus since the beginning.
In Christianity this idea of letting yesterday be history and tomorrow be mystery goes by a number of names: living in the present moment, living in the Eternal Now, contemplation, recollection. Jesus talks about it in his Sermon on the Mount: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34). The original monastic movements in Christianity were started by people living in tumultuous times (such as invading barbarian tribes and spreading pandemics) as they sought to live intentionally in the now. Other Christians followed their focus, if not their lifestyle, trying to live in the now whatever their situation was.
Whatever the name it goes by, the collective wisdom of living in the NOW applies to us today in the midst of the pandemic and divisiveness. People are fighting today over personal freedoms, but the real freedom in life isn’t whether or not we have to stay in and wear masks. Real freedom is found when we’re able to disconnect from anxieties, fears, compulsions, frustrations, anger in order to live in a space of calm, free from destructive emotions, where wisdom, health, and happiness truly reside. Too few today live wisely because they won’t live in the NOW—in that place where we are aware of our past, understand the need to prepare for the future, but are able to accept and adapt to what actually is. Living in the NOW means living in a place of healthy acceptance where our decision-making and life choices come out of the place where our psychology, our spirituality, and reality meet.
We have the resources to help you, whether that’s through counseling or spiritual direction, and I hope that if you decide in the new year to live more intentionally, you’ll let us be part of that transformation.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA