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You know how sometimes you’ll hear a single line from a song lyric and its insight, beauty and wisdom will stab you right in the heart? That happened to me yesterday.
It occurred when I listened to a Kris Kristofferson lyric, from his song The Pilgrim, Chapter 33 that said “he’s traded in tomorrow for today.”
When I heard it, my life seemed to flash before my eyes, and I suddenly realized how often I had traded in tomorrow for today.
Have you ever made that kind of trade?
Usually it appears as a choice. You can make a split-second decision to do something sketchy even though your conscience knows it’s foolish or unhealthy or wrong, or you can make a dumb decision just because you feel like throwing caution away, or you can overindulge in a hundred different ways, and sure, it might feel good in the moment – but it comes back to bite you tomorrow. Here’s how Kris expressed it:
See him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans,
Wearin’ yesterday’s misfortunes like a smile
Once he had a future full of money, love, and dreams,
Which he spent like they was goin’ outta style
And he keeps right on a’changin’ for the better or the worse,
Searchin’ for a shrine he’s never found
Never knowin’ if believin’ is a blessin’ or a curse,
Or if the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down. – Kris Kristofferson, © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.
That impulsive kind of trade – tomorrow for today, the present for the future, right now instead of right – has probably affected and afflicted just about everyone. I’ve certainly done it myself – made a quick, spontaneous, carpe diem kind of decision, and then regretted it later. With weak willpower, I made choices I later wished I’d thought about much longer and harder.
We all make those hasty mistakes, misjudgments, and missteps. They usually have to do with mortgaging our futures for something much more immediate. We see what we passionately want, even if we know it won’t be good for us, and we desire instant gratification. We focus on the present rather than mustering the self-denial of putting off that instant gratification for a greater and more lasting satisfaction later on.
In many ways, I’ve learned that the Baha’i teachings ask us to do the exact opposite:
Lift up your hearts above the present and look with eyes of faith into the future! Today the seed is sown, the grain falls upon the earth, but behold the day will come when it shall rise a glorious tree and the branches thereof shall be laden with fruit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 69.
Psychologists call it impulsiveness – the desire to avoid delay. When we’re impulsive, we want things now rather than later, just as most children do. But resisting short-term, immediate rewards to accomplish longer-term, more permanent ones usually means the child has matured into an adult. True adulthood includes the capacity to delay our gratification, plan for tomorrow, hold a vivid view of a distant future, and believe that it will come:
… the past is gone and forgotten, the present is fleeting, and the future is within the realm of hope. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 207.
Do not allow your minds to dwell on the present, but with eyes of faith look into the future, for in truth the Spirit of God is working in your midst. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 170.
Perhaps that’s what the word “faith” really means – a firm belief in an ever-unfolding, infinite future, a sense of trust that our lives will continue both in this world and in the next.
After all, the prospect of our mortal life suddenly coming to an end looms over all of us. Nobody has a guarantee that they’ll live to a ripe old age; and everyone knows that one day even the old will die. So, the popular logic goes, why not seize the day, gratify yourself right now, give in to the impulse to indulge? Why not follow the bumper-sticker wisdom of “Life is short – eat dessert first”?
If this existence had an end, then that short-term approach might be a reasonable way to live our lives. But since every soul lives eternally, as the Baha’i writings and the sacred scriptures of all religions promise, the whole idea that we will soon face complete annihilation erases the possibility of a true future and leads only to fear and debasement:
The conception of annihilation is a factor in human degradation, a cause of human debasement and lowliness, a source of human fear and abjection. It has been conducive to the dispersion and weakening of human thought, whereas the realization of existence and continuity has upraised man to sublimity of ideals, established the foundations of human progress and stimulated the development of heavenly virtues; therefore, it behooves man to abandon thoughts of nonexistence and death, which are absolutely imaginary, and see himself ever-living, everlasting in the divine purpose of his creation. He must turn away from ideas which degrade the human soul so that day by day and hour by hour he may advance upward and higher to spiritual perception of the continuity of the human reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 90.
That summarizes the promise of faith: you will not die.
So you do not have to trade in tomorrow for today, because you have an endless future of tomorrows ahead of you, first in a physical form and then in an eternal spiritual one:
Live then the days of thy life, that are less than a fleeting moment, with thy mind stainless, thy heart unsullied, thy thoughts pure, and thy nature sanctified, so that, free and content, thou mayest put away this mortal frame, and repair unto the mystic paradise and abide in the eternal kingdom for evermore. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 37.
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