Here is the answer for those of you who talk like this: “Today or tomorrow we are off to this or that town; we are going to spend a year there, trading, and make some money.” You never know what will happen tomorrow: you are no more than a mist that is here for a little while and then disappears. . . Everyone who knows the right thing to do and doesn’t do it commits a sin.
James 4: 13-4,17
In the United States there is currently a presidential primary campaign that is largely fueled by what political analysts are terming the “frustration” of the electorate. From left to right on the political spectrum anger and protest, prejudice and outrage are the determinative currencies. Although the current political environment may seem to be a long stretch from the spiritual teachings of the letter of James, in fact today’s passage may speak directly to the roots of our current social tensions.
American capitalism has flourished, and perhaps even exceeded its limits, as a cure, or at least a cover, for human anxiety. In today’s reading, James tells us that the source of our anxiety is our denial of our mortality. We long to be safe, ultimately from our own passing, and so we worry about tomorrow and the next day. At our spiritual core we are an awareness of our own vulnerability and contingency, and our unconscious believes that we can only manage that truth by denying it. This is well captured by a current advertisement for a heart medication which has adopted as its theme the song from the musical Annie: “The sun will come out tomorrow.” The ad preys on our fear of death and of not having “a tomorrow.” It has long been pointed out that a distinguishing aspect of the American character is a powerful, and some would say naive, optimism, a belief that tomorrow will be better than today. When global and societal realities diminish that optimism, the natural response is frustration and even rage.
A certain type of “optimism” includes a basic denial of limits. Living in a huge unpopulated land, it was once possible to avoid the limits of space by moving west and the effects of failure and loss of social standing by moving on. There was always a dream, even if not totally personally experienced, to pursue. The American version of “Today or tomorrow we are off to this or that town; we are going to spend a year there, trading, and make some money” was “There’s gold in them thar hills.” Perhaps at this moment in history there is no more space “out there” to which to expand. It may no longer possible for some to take so much more than their share and for those who lack to move out to another place where they can have their turn and time as the privileged.
At its core, every human, and so political, problem is a human problem. We can never recognize and appreciate the limits of global resources until we have appropriated and appreciated our own finitude: “You are no more than a mist that is here for a little while and then disappears.” Our anxiety will always compulsively drive our need for greater and greater security and so our “future orientation” until we understand that our life is a gift, given to us from moment to moment. The more that we fail to live in the present because we are worried about the future, the greater anxiety we experience, and so the vicious circle expands. Every great wisdom tradition, in one way or another, calls us to live ever more fully in what Jean Pierre de Caussade calls “the sacrament of the present moment.” As a sacrament, the present moment is the only place where we encounter God. The reason for this is that the past and the future are, to varying degrees, figments of our imaginations. They do not actually exist.
It is only by being in the present moment that we can experience our lives as having any solidity. When we feel the earth under our feet, the air upon our face, the sights and sounds of the moment, the very breath we breathe, and the beating of our own heart, we then know that at this moment, despite the fact that we “are no more than a mist that is here for a little while and then disappears,” we are here and alive. At that moment there is nothing to be anxious about, for, as Adam and Eve before the fall, we experience that our life and this moment are sheer gift.
The present moment is, then, a moment of wonder, awe, and gratitude for being. It is also, however, a call to act. “Everyone who knows the right thing to do and doesn’t do it commits a sin,” says James. We often experience the question of what we should be doing as very complicated. This uncertainty is, in itself, a source of great anxiety for us. How do we know “the right thing to do?” We can only know it by being present. God’s call and direction for us comes to us only in the present moment. If we are “all there,” then the entire field of formation that we are will manifest as a call to act, to do what is required.
At the age of eight and in the third grade, I was introduced to The Angelus of Jean-Francois Millet. It depicts a peasant couple working in the field who pause to pray at the sound of the Angelus bell from the church depicted in the distance. With the sound of the bell, they set aside their tools, fold their hands, bow their heads, and pray. The moment depicts the background against which the foreground of all our work and life is set. There is no question for these two people of what to do when the bell rings. At that moment they know what to do, and they do it.
We, on the other hand, are pulled and pushed in multiple directions. Knowing what to do may be so difficult for us because we are so seldom fully in the present. This is why we experience at times a dichotomy between the life of contemplation and of action. Contemplation is an action, and is always a call to further action. “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). The greatest danger for us is not a lack of doing; it is rather failing to do, in all our busyness, “the right thing to do.” Our acts, our work can be the result of obedience to the call, the need and demand of the present moment, or they can be a reaction to an anxiety about our own being that fragments and disperses us.
At the social level, the body politic, if moved primarily by frustration and anxiety, will likely make wrong and even disastrous decisions. Personally, if it is anxiety that sources our actions, we shall fail to make the contribution to the world that is ours to make. We may do many things and attain much recognition, but we may fail to give that which is only ours to do.