Ambivalences of Time
How do we live, preparing for the future? A more problematic question is how do we live while waiting in the face of the unknown? For many of us our lives are lived in anticipation of the unknown. How do we live in the present-time sandwiched between expectations that point us towards the future, and memories that keep us prisoners of our past? Between the past and the future lie the uncertainties of the present-time.
The passage from the Third Isaiah writing in the context of the returning exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem echos the tensions of living into an uncertain future. Uncertain though the future might be, it is yet, rich in potential. However, the shackles of the past constantly threaten to resurface and derail progress into the new.
For most of us, our attitude towards time is at best ambivalent. We behave as if the past, present, and future are insulated from each other as if contained in water-tight compartments . We say: oh that’s in the past, to imply that nothing now can be done to change it. Likewise we regard the future in much the same way as we regard the past. We might say of the future: oh the future hasn’t happened yet it’s not real, it’s only a dream.
These ways of treating the past and the future are our attempts to bring some order and clarity to our experience of the flow of events in the present. Yet, time remains an ambivalent experience for us. The definition of ambivalent is, to have mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone. Both mixed feelings and contradictory ideas describe our relationship to time.
T.S. Eliot, is a poet whose work is familiar to many of you. Eliot explores the ambivalence of time in much of his poetry. Note a moment ago I used the present tense, Eliot is a poet. Is he a poet or was he a poet? See how our ambivalence towards time expresses itself in such ordinary figures of speech. Eliot explores our ambivalence towards time in passages like this in the finale to his Four Quartets; his poem Little Gidding.
What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. … We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.
The past finds echo in our expectations of the future. In the yet-to-become-known we encounter the unresolved projections of that which is now only half remembered. That’s the way the human mind works. It pattern-matches experience so that present experience and future expectations are often strongly conditioned by projections of the way the remembered, or half remembered, or apparently forgotten, still actively influences us.
The season of Advent is the start of a new Church year. Advent is for many of us our most favorite season. Advent is a season of expectation, preparation, and waiting. Expectations are often-times difficult. How can we trust that our expectations will really come to fruition? Preparation is somewhat easier. At least in preparation we have something to do, something that distracts us from the anxiety in the pit of our stomachs. In contrast waiting is an experience that is the most difficult to tolerate.Waiting is intolerable because it takes place in the space when preparations have finally ceased, and yet, expectations have yet to be fulfilled.
Advent is Expectation
Isaiah is a favourite text for Advent. Isaiah dreams of a future that has yet to become fully realized. It is a vision of a future that dares to break free of imagination limited by memories of the past. Although on a chronological level, Isaiah speaks to us from our collective past, we hear his voice speaking directly to our own experience of the present. The context changes, yet the challenges remain the same.
We live in a time when to have a positive dream for our collective future feels like a forlorn hope we can’t afford. Instead we feel we need to prepare for the worst as we survey a future where:
- The post 1945 stability of the Pax Americana is fraying. New and ominous forces, both terrorist and nationalist, rise to threaten our world order. The world order of Pax Americana, which has for 70 years ensured stability and security no longer insures that stability and security are dictated only on our own terms.
- In the face of apocalyptic visions of the future the cohesion of our nation fractures. We argue over the best way to address our problems. More serious still, we disagree about the nature of the problems facing us. Some argue that the way to secure the future is through budget reduction, while others advocate the urgent need to renew our vital, but crumbling, infrastructures.
- We hotly contest among ourselves the reality of global warming and the degradation of the world environment as natural disasters of epic proportion ravage the planet. We argue even though its plain to all that we are not insulated from the frightening power of nature as parts of the country are ravaged by flood, wind, fire, and drought.While some lobby for policies that might avert a coming environmental catastrophe, others argue that continued degradation of the environment is a price worth paying to maintain our competitive, economic edge.
- We are witnessing a resurgence of institutional racism that many of us thought long dead and buried; our forgotten past rising to haunt our present.
- Economic disparities increase to alarming proportions. The prosperity of the many is sacrificed to the profits of the few.
- Our own middle class dreams of financial security evaporate before our eyes. We are not only fearful for our children’s futures, we are baffled and disquieted by the cynical indifference of our politicians to the future of our children as commitments to education and jobs for the young are abandoned in the face of economic expediencies.
- Our political system becomes even more corrupted by unfettered restraint on the financial influence of vested interests. David Brooks, the conservative New York Times journalist who appears every Friday on PBS’s The News Hour, has noted the problem for the political system is not the amount of money pouring in, but the lack of transparency, so that we can’t know who it is that is wielding undue influence over our politicians.
In the midst of political and national turmoil, Isaiah dreams of a time when the improbable will happen as part of a new messianic age. Jerusalem, now but a ruin to which the exiles are returning is to become rebuilt into a new hope for the future. We live in the present, often a difficult place to be. We hear the ghosts of the past whispering in our ear. We long for the promise of a new future, if we could but have the courage to hope. In this Advent time God calls us saying: let us plant in the present-time, the seeds of our audacious dreaming of our future.
Advent as Preparation
So what is the point of Advent’s message of preparation in the face of our tendency to be so fearful of the yet-to-become-known? Advent is a time for expectation of things to come. Advent is a time for preparation, which means not preparing for the worst that can happen, but having the audacity in the present time to plant the seeds that will one day mature into our future hope. Advent means consciously rejecting the self-protective foreboding that results when we can only see into our future through the prism of our past.
Advent is Waiting
However, most of all Advent is a time for patient waiting. In my experience waiting is the hardest thing to tolerate. Yet, the ability to courageously wait is the hallmark of our task in this present-time. The Theologian Paul Tillich put it beautifully when he wrote:
Although waiting is not having, it is also having. The fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we already possess it. Waiting, says Tillich, anticipates that which is not yet real. That is, if we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait, Tillich says, in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. Theology of Culture as compiled at http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=378&C=83
Tillich’s theme: the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us – is something I will return to as we journey together through this coming Advent.