Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, November 27, 2009

Anticipation



Somewhere in late October or early November, the hits at this blog start piling up: people searching for information on Christmas or Advent, and often passing through here (Google loves me, this I know/For Sitemeter tells me so!). Long before Advent has begun, someone wants to know something about Advent. Long before the weather has started to turn toward winter (at least here in Texas, where the signal Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat is the turn from highs in the 80's to highs in the 70's), people are already turning their thoughts to the future. And then, this morning, reading the hometown paper in my parent's den, I note this headline:

"America Gives Thanks as '09 Gives Way to 2010."


Really? November 27 and it's "Happy New Year" already? I'd better get the Valentine's Day Decorations up, then! Time's a-wastin'!

I get the same increase in hits before Lent starts, and again weeks before Holy Week. Admittedly twice nothing is still nothing and my sampling is so small as to be statistically insignificant, but we do seem to have created an entire culture to living in a future which is supposed to be better than the present. Today, at 4 p.m., the stores were still open in America, so it was "too soon to tell" if Black Friday presaged a good or ill omen for America's retailers. This a reporter informed me with all seriousness. The reporter might as well have said it was too early to tell how the 21st century would turn out, but with a promise that, with the end of the first decade in sight, we'd know soon. Why must the future be known now, in the present? What happens to the future then? By the time we experience it, it isn't even the present any longer: it's already the past, we've already been there, done that, and we want the future we anticipated to hurry up and get here!

I suspect this is a "liberal" disease, too, one created by spending two much time imagining perfection, and turning away from a world that consistently fails to present it. Late that same evening I came across this post at TPM, which notes that Republicans are more likely to vote in 2010 than Democrats by 81% to 56%. Josh Marshall's sage conclusion?

On the one hand you've got very gunned up conservatives, who make up an even greater proportion of the diminished GOP. On the other you've got a mix of demoralized progressives and other Dems who feel like they got the job done in November 2008 and have checked out on politics ... at least for now.
Apparently we liberals conclude that either we voted for 'em, now they should do the dirty work for us (and PDQ, too!), or we voted, and now we turn away from the messy world to continue imagining the perfect one we'd have if only everyone thought as we did. Which is not to say we should all turn into Alan Grayson, either.

There's something peculiarly American about this, it seems to me, this constant rushing toward a future we can never catch up with, running away from a present we can't quite stand. I can understand not wanting to languish in times slow-chapped power, but this is ridiculous. Of course, hits to my blog are no sign of anything; a smaller sampling is harder to imagine. And the Xmas decorations going up earlier and earlier every year at the stores is understandable: today has become known as "Black Friday" because it supposedly puts retailers "in the black" for the entire year. But do we really dwell so much in the future that even the future is not here quickly enough for us, and the present is just an obstacle to our future happiness?

Everyone feels that way about Christmas by now. It's supposed to be the blessed event of the season, the perfect holiday family gathering which heals all wounds and makes good all expectations; and we start anticipating it in October. Not just in the stores, but on the TeeVee. Christmas TV "specials" crowd out Thanksgiving. A new version of "A Christmas Carol" could hardly wait for October for release. I think it may have already left the theaters. TV specials will crowd the airwaves (if there are any TV stations still actually broadcasting) between now and mid-December, in mad haste to get on and over with before December 25th. I hadn't expected to be looking toward New Year's Day until December 26th, but already I'm wondering if by then we won't already be done with that. Why the rush? Why the hurry? Why have we learned to hasten to the future as if the present was an unlivable reality and the future a place we could actually live if we could only get there in time?

I think there are two related sentiments here: one is a desire for perfection that can never be achieved, and so leaves some of us permanently frustrated with the present. The other is a desire for a future where we finally achieve that mythical "pursuit of happiness" Thomas Jefferson unfortunately, and certainly unintentionally, saddled us with. Jefferson undoubtedly meant, at best, that the pleasure was in the pursuit, but as a nation we've turned happiness into the Questing Beast, and cast ourselves all in the role of King Pellinor. It's something we will never catch, but we all seem to feel it is our ancestral duty to pursue it. The pursuit of perfection leaves us half-crazed with frustration, but the pursuit of the Questing Beast leaves us forever on the quest, and never at rest in the present. Indeed the future, the goal to be obtained, becomes a perpetual present, and while time doesn't come to a halt, it effectively ceases to exist, leaving us in a sort of limbo where we keep looking for temporal boundaries: Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, the first Sunday of Advent or Lent, the end of school/beginning of school, as measures of, at least, our progress. But rather than observe them, we constantly anticipate them, and by the time they arrive we've rushed past them, looking perpetually ahead to the future that is never coming and never arrives, but pulling it into the present so that present and future are obliterated in a constant Now experienced as Then. Except it isn't experienced; at all. Or just barely.

What would it be like, for once, to slow down? To not anticipate the future, even it's only December, or only Advent, or only the shopping days before Xmas; to not anticipate them, but simply to experience them? What would that feel like? Instead of judging the quality of the days, just to relish their quotidian nature? Instead of rushing to accomplish the future, we think only of the present, and what it requires of us? "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." "Give us this day our daily bread."

What if, instead of asking for so much, we asked for less? And then realized we already had it, and everything we need? What then?

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