Imagine you are standing upon some path surrounded by trees or open fields. Look ahead and you see a point in the path you will reach soon, but are not there now. And look behind and you see a past point where you were, but are not there now. This moment you are standing in the present.
HERE AND NOW
In his essay, The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age,Kentuckian poet-farmer Wendell Berry wonders about the future. And, if you have read any other Berry essay, poem or novel, you know he often wonders about the past, too. Despite the looking ahead and behind, Berry always points his audience to the present; look here and see now.
As if Berry is your Dantean guide, he leads from issue to issue facing the economically damned places on American land, and then he addresses questions about the future by describing “what I would call ‘provision’, which depends upon being attentively and responsibly present in the present.”
Provision is often associated with God or a parent-figure, both of which appear increasingly absent in our time. Is God working another double-shift to make sure we are provided for? Will he miss your game, your reading, your birthday again? Is dad working upstairs in his office again? Won’t he come down for dinner?
If we assume that God is like the parents of the past who provided a future for their children by being absent, either by being at the office or in their heads too much, then we assume we will see little of him between now and whenever the provisional-blessing comes. We will expect to see him later on, but not right now.
Before despair takes over, Berry steps in and insists, “We must study what exists: what we know of the past, what we know now, and what we can see now, if we look” [emphasis mine]. Here, Berry is responding to the current educational focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). What educators and futurists see as the needs of the past and for the future, may not be needs for the present. That is to say, that there are limitations to provision based on the future. We cannot assume that our needs are unchanging, as if the landscape of our path will never change with the seasons. STEM for one thing, according to Berry, is limited by the need of other disciplines—the humanities, namely. Likewise, our vision for the future is limited. We each focus on what our past needs have been, and guess what our future needs might be, but do we see the present needs? Do we see our homes as anything more than potential projects? Do we see our children as anything more than potential working adults?
WE BELONG IN THE PRESENT
In the present, Berry says of children: “We love them because we are alive to them in this present moment, which is the only time when we and they are alive.” Recognition of the limitation of our lives, literally the time-limit of our days and years, must root us to the present. Anything else would be nostalgia or fear. By planting ourselves in the present we see that what is before us is the only thing that ever could matter: our life under the movement of the stars.
And what about God? If we take on this view of provision we begin to see God as ever-present, which he is. We begin to see God’s presence as the only thing that could matter, which is our life sustained by the love that moves the stars. The Psalmist understood this when he wrote, “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; / you hold my lot / The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; / Indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (Ps. 16.5-6). The provisional language used in this song is compelling: portion, cup, lot, lines, place. And all of this is a beautiful inheritance.
Of course, the fearful action is to sit down and refuse to admit there is a future or past. This is not what Berry is encouraging. Rather he is reminding us, again and again, that this present life includes all that has come before and all that will come after, and this present moment is the place you belong.
Layne Hilyer presently lives in Plano, Texas with his wife Lauren. He works as an English teacher and Department Head at a local private school and worships at a local Anglican parish. He received a BA in English from Asbury University in Lexington, Kentucky.