“Each of us has our own hard won perspective, built by our individual past,
which created our own unique way of seeing things.
In other words: each of us has our own decoder ring.”
– Lisa Cron –
Remember secret decoder rings? You could send off for them if you had bought Ovaltine chocolate drink mix or Kix cereal or other products, and sometimes they were actually inside the package. Using a simple substitution cipher, the ring allowed you to decode a secret message. (I don’t remember what the messages were, but I can guess that they were along the lines of “Ovaltine makes strong bones,” or “If you like Kix, try Trix.”) What Lisa Cron is saying in the above quote is that our past is the code by which we interpret ourselves and the world around us. But what if we don’t like our decoder ring? What if the message it decodes is despair? Can we change it?
Another type of ring became popular in the 1970’s: mood rings made of crystals that changed color with fluctuations in the temperature of your skin. Occasionally, changing our outlook is just that subtle. Small questions, an overheard comment or a helpful hand from a surprising source can color the way we see things. Or to switch metaphors, minor drips can wear away hardened beliefs little by little.
But frankly, subtle and easy don’t usually work. As Seth Godin points out, change often doesn’t happen until we’re thirsty enough. Usually to change our view, we have to be shaken by a major event – a wedding, a funeral, a birth, a relocation for school, a new job, a major health crisis, or a milestone birthday.
No matter what triggers the look back over our shoulder, when we see our own tracks, our own personal lifeline, we deserve a moment to indulge ourselves and wonder what if. It’s even okay to admit that we wish our prologue had been different. But we can’t drive forward with our eyes always on the rearview mirror.
It’s not helpful to set up camp in the “if-only” frame of mind. David Brooks, in The Road to Character, quotes Samuel Johnson on the subject of sorrow, which Johnson calls “that state of mind in which our desires are fixed upon the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant wish that something was otherwise than it has been, a tormenting and harassing want of some enjoyment or possession we have lost.”
Our thoughts seep into our pores. Some heal us; others poison us. We can do without the torment of wishing the past had been otherwise. We’re healthier to admit that, yes, the past has been mapped in permanent ink, and it may look like a roller coaster or a dive off a cliff, but it’s the road life has taken so far. However, the past is past. We’re not standing back there now. Lisa Dale Norton, in her book about writing memoir, encourages writers to look back at the events of life and “line them up in some pattern that offers grace for all involved.” We don’t have to write a memoir to do that. When we look back, we can choose how to line up the memories. We can choose a view of grace. Isn’t that what we’re to be about – grace for all involved?
We can draw a box at the leading edge of our lifeline and put an X in it, like a mall map: You Are Here. You’ve made it this far. What life comes down to now is: Where do your feet stand at this moment?
The next question is: Which direction will you point your toes? That is something we have some control over. Here is the only place and now is the only moment when we can decide which way to go. Time may be long, spanning far behind us and stretching an unknown distance ahead, but now is all anyone ever has. We can mentally relive or prelive our lives. But the now is where we exist.
Now is when and where we make our choices. This is where we either renew our commitment to our original vision or choose a different path. This is where we decide how to walk forward – in despair or integrity. Realistically, we’ll experience a bit of both as we journey on, but we can tip the scale in favor of integrity. When we do that, according to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, we gain the strength of wisdom.
Here’s where the faith cycle that began in infancy comes full circle. The sense of integrity found in healthy older adults contributes to the trust that should develop in the young child, because trust, according to Webster’s, is “the assured reliance on another’s integrity.” Erikson links the trust of childhood to the integrity of adulthood, saying, “[H]ealthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.”
Someday our now will be our last moment, at least on this side of time. But every present moment of now is a point at which time touches eternity. Eternity describes a sacred quality of life that’s accessed and lived in the Present. I picture earth time as a thick book suspended in a vast expanse of eternity. At this present moment, the book is open to the double-page spread of our current place on the timeline – yours and mine. As we live each day, we’re writing our stories, drawing our lifelines, taking our turn onstage. It’s one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories. And those choices are not made in the Past or the Future; they are made in the eternity-rich Present.
Once we get past the Past, we can become aware of the Present. I drafted this post as a chapter in a new book and began writing it at Advent, when we were being reminded at church that Advent is a season of emptying ourselves in order to receive the incarnation, opening ourselves to receive what gives us life. Most of what gives us life is found in the Now. Scents, flavors, textures, colors, shapes, sounds – we experience all of these in the present moment.
I suspect that was Jesus’s point when he said, “Become as little children” (Matthew 18:3). Children live in the moment, open to and aware of what’s right in front of them. Parents and caregivers of young children have the advantage of seeing through a child’s eyes and tapping into time as experienced by a child. If we’re open to children, they constantly show us life’s wonders through the sensory-filled world of the present moment.
We adults would do well to give ourselves a childlike Time-Out now and then, intentionally stilling ourselves for the purpose of absorbing the present moment, considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. The original concept of the Sabbath was a grand Time-Out, ceasing business as usual – or busy-ness as usual – and settling into the sacred moment of Now, where the Present touches Eternity. In fact, the Present is the only place where we can experience Time touching Eternity.
Treat yourself to a Time-Out this week, and as you settle into the Present, become aware of time touching Eternity.
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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.
Decoder Ring photo courtesy sobebunny
Mood Ring photo public domain
Other photos courtesy pixabay.com.