We western folks are too future-minded. That mindset tends to get a lot done (partly explaining our relative economic wealth), but it also tends to make us miserable.
When focusing on goals and progress, we are always living in (and ruminating upon) the unfulfilled. The moment we “achieve” something, we’re onto the next thing, like a mad fox who spends his entire life only ever catching rabbits, never resting in the sun with his cubs after a successful hunt (most of our popular modern avenues of “rest” or “down time”, like Netflix, social media and video games, are really just more and different coloured rabbits). One of many problems with such a life is that peace can only be experienced in our present moment and location; in revelling in what is rather than what might or shall be, or what is somewhere else. In this sense, animals are wiser than humans. There is no fox like the one I’ve described, but humans like him are everywhere.
Eastern thought excels at grounding the mind primarily in the present moment and avoiding desires and goals, since these inevitably become idols and harbingers of stress, anxiety and misery. Delighting instead in nature, noticing the miraculous makeup of reality as it stands in any moment, is the surest path to contentment and joy. For a Christian, this can mean simply delighting in the all-encompassing presence of God and in the wondrous creation he’s placed around us, and refusing to set spiritual goals for our times of prayer and rest. Our times spent consciously with God should be breaks from the tiring adult construction of goals (or even worse, destinies), which are most often driven by the ego.
Still, how can a bias towards present-mindedness (against future-mindedness) be squared with the Christian imperatives which explicitly call us to be future-minded and purpose-driven, including the great commission? This seems to be a matter of balance. Even from the eastern perspective, I don’t think there’s a single guru who would encourage us to never have a thought about the future, or a goal towards which we might work. We can’t do so much as prepare a basic meal without setting and accomplishing a future objective. But at the very least, whenever we stop and contemplate (which is hopefully very often), we should allow such times to be ones of spontaneity rather than yet another time governed by an agenda; we should take a moment to just be, for God’s sake! (Literally). This will help to balance out the madness of the rest of our western lives.
If we value the quality of our experience of life in the slightest, these times of simply being are not optional. The fox must lounge aimlessly in the afternoon sun, or his perpetual hunt will require him to borrow energy from himself which can only be repaid by taking another victim. It’s a cycle of endless (and needless) consumption and cost. The likely outcome is that before the fox even knows it, all the rabbits are hunted and he quickly joins them in the great beyond. A more patient and grateful fox would probably always have enough to eat, and would have a much better time (as would his cubs).
Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt 6:25-26).
To our western ears, these words can actually land quite awkwardly, as if Jesus might be missing something. It can seem to us that there are great benefits to planning and storing away in barns (besides, didn’t Joseph do exactly that in Egypt to the benefit of many?) It also seems that some birds actually die from lack of food (which is equally true for some humans). But we often miss the fact that there are also inestimably great costs to living in a way opposed to Jesus’ teaching here. In our mad sprint for full security and safety, we end up living like our strange fox friend, which is not living at all.
I believe that what Jesus is describing here is most of all a state of mind which leads to true life (which can only be experienced in the present). In the very next verse, he says: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” It turns out that (taken together) this passage is a wisdom teaching about trusting God enough to live primarily in the present with Him, rather than endlessly ruminating about what might be, and then living from that place of worry. Once again we might protest, noting that worrying about running out of food could be quite rational in some seasons, and could even add years to our lives, depending on our response. To this I can imagine Jesus responding, “Be careful that those years are spent living, and not anxiously extending the number of such shallow days”
The opposite of a grateful and peaceful life (which might otherwise be called a good one) is a life spent entirely in the mental imagination of the future — the perpetually unfulfilled future — and speaking from experience, that’s exactly as miserable as it sounds. The only place and time in which to love God and neighbour are here and now. And such love is the stuff of true life.