Pastor Note #29 — Looking Around the Corner


A cardinal on a snowy, early spring day; photo by GAC

So, we’ve come to the beginning of a new year, and those seem lately to come flying around more often than once a year.  The idea that time seems to move more quickly as we get older is not a novel idea.  Conventional wisdom says it’s true.  And who am I to argue with conventional wisdom (whoever he or she is)?

Of course, the fact is that clock and calendar time move at the same pace whether they seem to be moving faster or whether they seem to be moving slower.  The key word in all of this is “seem.”  The real issue in how fast time seems to be passing in our lives has to do with things inside of us not with the pace of the hands around the face of a clock.

So, if the actual (scientific?) pace at which time passes is constant, regardless of how we feel about it, why should we care about how the passage of time feels to us?  That’s a good question.  I’m glad I asked.  On the one hand, how we feel about the passing of time has no bearing on many things in life, such as the management of a scientific experiment in a lab or our planning of a road trip to Des Moines.  In the outside world, time is time, and my feelings about that really don’t affect how long it will take me to drive from my home to my dentist’s office for a root canal.  But inside of us, on the other hand, how we feel about the passage of time can reveal a lot about the state of our souls.  And the state of our souls matters a lot — to God, to the people who love us, and even to the fruitfulness of our lives in the outside world.

Inside of us are all sorts of forces that can shape how we experience the passage of time.  Anticipation of some pleasing and exciting event can make time seem to pass very, very slowly.  Ask any seven year old child if it seems to them that Christmas will never get here, and most of them will tell you that the closer we get to December 25th, the more time seems to stand still.  Dread of some painful or frightening event can make time seem to slip past as if the world has switched to a twelve-hour day.  Due dates for complicated and yet crucial projects seem to approach at twice the speed the calendar says they should.

If we take those two feelings — excited anticipation of something good and anxious dread of something terrible — and turn them into general attitudes toward life, we might call the former, optimism, and the latter, pessimism.  Optimism in life refers to an approach to life in which a person focuses on the good things and the blessings that come to us as we live our lives.  Pessimism in life refers to an approach to life in which a person focuses on the bad things and sorrows that come to us as we live our lives.

Optimistic and pessimistic attitudes can often be quite obvious in the people we know, though not always in exactly the way we

A tufted titmouse on a chilly day; photo by GAC

have come to expect.  We most commonly, I think, consider optimism/ pessimism to be fundamentally future-oriented.  An optimist expects things to turn out well.  An optimist operates on the basic assumption that something good is just around the corner.  A pessimist is the opposite.  A pessimist expects things in life to turn out badly.  A pessimist generally assumes that just around the corner there is a banana peel, which he will most certainly step on and fall.  That’s just how things are, the pessimist knows.  It can’t be helped, and to think that things are any different is just being naive.

Although this “around the corner” aspect of optimism/pessimism, this future orientation is the most frequently recognized feature, optimism and pessimism express themselves just as much in our relationship to the present and to the past.  We’ve all had the experience of sharing memories with people and discovering that we don’t all remember the same event — an event that we all experience — in the same way.  Optimism and pessimism will affect the things we remember about the past and the meaning of the events of the past.  Of course, sometimes we can subconsciously distort our memories of the past in order to protect ourselves from painful or guilt-laden memories.  But also, our generally optimistic or pessimistic worldview can lead us to focus on the positive or the negatives of our past.

Our perceptions of and approach to our present circumstances can also be shaped by our optimistic or pessimistic outlook.  On one particular afternoon of visiting with folks in local nursing homes a few years ago, I had that fact demonstrated for me vividly.  I’ve told this story a number of times, because it so dramatically illustrates choosing an optimistic or pessimistic outlook can profoundly influence the way we feel about our circumstances.

My first visit that afternoon was to a woman, who was about ninety years old.  She had in the previous year or so become increasingly frail and unstable on her feet.  When I entered her room at the nursing home, I found her in bed, staring glumly out the window.   I asked how she was, and she immediately burst into tears.  “See that thing over there?” she said, pointing to her walker as if she were pointing to a pile of dog droppings in the corner.  “I can’t take a step without using that thing.  I can’t even just go into the bathroom without using that.  It’s like a ball and chain to me.”  And she began to weep.  I tried to be comforting and wise and pastorly, but nothing seemed to make much difference.  When I left her, she was still in tears, still lamenting the presence of the vile aluminum frame in her life.

I made my way to visit another of our long-time members in a different nursing facility.  I will tell you her name, because her story is much more encouraging.  Celia Hutchinson was well into her nineties.  When I entered her room, I found her also in bed reading a very, very large print book.  I asked her how she was, and she said that she was very well indeed.  Then, she said the most remarkable thing.  Laying her hand on the aluminum walker parked next to her bed, she said, “You know, as long as I have this here, I can go wherever I want.  I can take myself to the bathroom.  I can walk down the hall to the activities room.  I can get around fine.  I don’t have any complaints.”

One afternoon, two women in nearly the same circumstances, two very different outlooks on life.  The only real difference I could see was the way each woman chose to interpret her situation.  One chose to focus on her opportunities and freedoms.  One chose to focus on her limitations and losses.

Now, I know that in some sense, our natural inclination toward optimism or pessimism is influenced by our upbringing and even, probably, our genetics and brain chemistry.  But those factors are only influences or predispositions.  But much of what shapes our expectations of life come from the kinds of mental and spiritual habits of mind we allow ourselves to develop.  Over time and through each experience in life, we make choices about how we will think about our circumstances — past, present, and future.  As those choices begin to follow a pattern — optimistic or pessimistic — the nurture habits of thought, habits of thought that can stand up in opposition to what we know about God and his plans and involvement in our lives.

Pessimism says, “Life is stacked against me.  No matter what I do, things will turn out badly for me.  The world is a dark, dangerous, and miserable place, so what can we expect from life but sadness and disappointment.”  But if God is really there, if he really gave his Son up to suffering and death out of love for you and me and the whole fallen world, then shouldn’t that produce a different outlook on life than we find in the words of pessimism?

Listen to what God has to say through his word:

A pileated woodpecker getting ready for the family; photo by GAC

“If God is for us, who can ever be against us. . . . I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. . . . Indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Romans 8:31, 38, 39. [NLT]

 “But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.  They will soar high on wings like eagles.  They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not faint.”  Isaiah 40:31.  [NLT]

 “Even though I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me. . . . Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life.”  Psalm 23:4, 6 [HCSB]

Do we really believe that God is good?  Do we really believe that God is able to do the good that is natural to his character?  Do we believe that is actively involved in the intimate details of our lives?

I encourage you to look at the coming year knowing that, as you live it, you do so under the protective care and purposeful direction of your loving Father and faithful Good Shepherd.  The path he lead you on may involve the deepest, darkest valleys.  But even there the light and leading of God will not leave you.  You don’t need to be afraid of what may be around the corner.  What’s around the corner is Jesus, and he is always good.

©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.

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