When rolled out next to the wish-dreams we have for the future, our present realities pale in comparison. This is not due to the superiority of future experience, though many of us assume that tomorrow will be better than today. It is due to the superiority of imagined experience over real experience. The present is lived while the future is dreamed. Rare is the person who is content. Cynics claim that such hope, such discontent in the present, is the proverbial carrot hung in front of the proverbial horse. The one thing that gives meaning to masses of people. The false hope of a better tomorrow. Such cynics (a word that has its roots in the ripping and tearing that wild dogs did) discount the human ability to achieve something better than the present. They’re right, of course. We are a miserable lot living in sin, squalor, poverty, sickness, and death. We hate our neighbors. We kill our brothers with malice in our hearts. We crave what’s not ours and trash the stuff that is. The driving force behind our biology is one of self-interest. The driving force behind our political/economic theory is also self-interest. We pick our careers, majors, spouses, and children all out of self-interest. The reason our imagined future is so much better than our present is because our future is one where all of our self-interest is satisfied. The present rarely accommodates that sort of libertine free-will.
I recently wrote an entry in my journal where I spelled out my wish-dream (a term I am borrowing from Bonhoeffer, by the way; you can read my entry on it here). I’m not going to post it here because it highlights my arrogance and self-interest while disparaging other people and institutions. That’s what happens when we let our self-interest run wild. I’m blessed enough to be in a community of Christians some of whom called me out about my wish-dream and my attempt to impose it on others.
I was prompted to write this entry because we just finished our camp for the summer. For those who do not know, I am interning with the Children’s Ministry at First Colony Church of Christ this summer. Most of the summer has been weekly things I have done with the kids and parents, but from Sunday through Thursday afternoon we all were at camp together. Camp is one of those things that slows time down. As one of the adults in the cabin with the third-grade boys, I learned that the 15 minutes between the end of the devo and lights out is, actually, 5 hours. They burp, fart, scream, dance, and refuse to brush their teeth. In that moment, all I was thinking about is them asleep and me outside the cabin participating with the other adults in real conversation. The other adult in the cabin was, even with all my counselor experience, far better at that job than me (probably because he is a father). He talked with the kids, loved on the kids, got to know the kids, and solved little problems for the kids. In the middle of swim time while I was daydreaming about being back home away from children, he was in the lake with the kids knowing full well that he would go home at the end of the week to his own children.
“If only camp was over, then I could relax. If only the kids would go to sleep, then I could have some me-time. If only I were no longer in Sugar Land and were back in Abilene, then I would be totally content. If only First Colony was just like Beltway (my church in Abilene) then I could be satisfied during worship.” All of those thoughts have run through my mind recently.
But, then I reflect on last semester. “If only classes were over, then I could relax. If only Beltway were more liturgical, then I could meet God in worship. If only I were back in Europe, then I would feel connected to the world. If only I were in graduate school, then I would feel academically challenged.”
I was no more content a few months ago than I am now. Unless I do something about it, I won’t be more content in the next few months than I was this summer.
The problem, as I see it, is the radical self-interest I have. I want to feel good. I want to meet my wants. Since nothing under the sun can do that, I dream about a false future where my wants are met. The wish-dream sustains me through my present lack of contentment. The “if only’s” keep piling up.
Jesus proposed a solution, called by Scot McKnight “the Jesus Creed”, to the pain of discontent: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
If it’s not all about me anyway, then I will always be content.