I recently opened my daily New York Times morning e-mail to these sentences from David Leonhardt: “Good morning. The pandemic may now be in permanent retreat in the U.S.” A good morning indeed. With the changes in the CDC guidelines suggesting easing restrictions on mask wearing outside, and then inside, for those who are fully vaccinated, I find myself in a novel state of mind that has been dormant for much of the past year; thinking about the future. I am awakening to the fact that for the past 15 months I have been utterly focused on the here and now. Like many of you, I have been joking about the fuzziness of my COVID brain and my seeming inability to remember much of last spring. At the same time, I haven’t been thinking about the future beyond a couple of weeks out; planning dinner several hours from now seems to have satisfied most of my forward thinking. However, with the CDC pronouncements, I feel as if I have been let out of a cage. In the past two weeks I have started planning a family reunion for October, training for a marathon in December, and booking a family cruise for next year.
In all this excitement, I am finding a certain level of discombobulation in pulling together an integrated sense of self that continues to be present-oriented but now includes less trauma in the past and concrete plans for the future. As we emerge from the pandemic, I am wondering about how to rebalance myself in the past, present, and future.
Time is a funny thing. While we have highly standardized measurements of time, easily measuring the attosecond (10-18, or one quintillionth of a second), social psychologists tell us that the way we think about time, and more specifically how we think about ourselves in the past, present, and future, is anything but objective. What is the past for some is still the present for others. The future, depending on who you talk to, can be later today, tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year. And then there are people for whom neither the past nor the future is part of their daily calculus; it’s only the here and now that matters.
Twenty years ago, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo1found that people could be biased in how they thought about themselves in terms of a past, present or future time orientation, what he called “temporal perspective.” Those who saw their personal story as more anchored to the past tended to see it in terms of either a positive or negative narrative; the positive stories were more nostalgic while the negative ones were heavy in trauma, pain, and regret. People who placed themselves squarely in the present tended toward hedonism and its attendant risk-taking or fatalism reflecting feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Those who leaned toward a future orientation were more likely to see themselves as striving toward self-set goals and were more organized and conscientious. This research taught us two things; people thought of themselves in terms of time and that it differed across individuals. Perhaps even more interestingly, there were no generational differences associated with the orientations in this original study. In fact, the participants were all undergraduates. As later research would show, differences in temporal perspective can be tied to personality, past trauma, social class, education, religion, or culture but people are not strictly tied to any orientation by their age.2
While psychology shows that people can have a biased temporal perspective, does God’s word provide a preference for how we should think about ourselves in time? It turns out that the Bible is full of verses encouraging locating ourselves in all three. I am including a few samples from the NRSV but there are many for each orientation. To begin, verses on the past, admonish us to remember; to see our present as emanating from the past.
Deuteronomy 4:9 – But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from you mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children
Psalm 143:5 – I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the work of your hands
Verses with a present orientation caution that we simply cannot predict the future and to enjoy the here and now.
Proverbs 27:1 – Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.
Matthew 6:27 – And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
Verses with a future orientation instruct that life is fleeting and that our hope should be oriented in God’s future plans.
Psalm 39:4-5 – “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.
Hebrews 11:1 – Now faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen.
Taken individually, each would appear to encourage one orientation over the others, lacking a certain through line in how we should locate ourselves in time. But I think a better understanding is that these types of verses, taken in their totality, are an admonition not to become more comfortable living in one orientation over the others. Anchoring one’s self in the past may lead to a lack of motivation in shaping the present and future. A bias toward the present may mean a lack of perspective from the past and little hope in the future. A predisposition toward the future could be mere gossamer veiling individual and corporate hardships of the past and present. Perhaps the message here is that the over-reliance of one orientation over the others is counterproductive to individuals as well as the work of God’s kingdom on earth.
While Zimbardo’s original research showed that people could have a biased time perspective, the research of the past twenty years by Zimbardo and others is robust in showing that people who have a harmonized combination of all three time orientations, what they label as a “balanced temporal perspective,” have healthier overall well-being including better mental health, life satisfaction, and optimism. They show greater flexibility in meeting personal needs as their life situations change.3 Within this harmonized view of self, those with a favorable view of their past have greater continuity with their present, are more friendly, have greater self-esteem and lower depression. People with a continuity between their present and future selves tend to be more planful and ethically responsible as they are more likely to be able to picture future consequences. Moments of intense concentration in the present such as those experienced by athletes and musicians, in what psychologists refer to as “flow,” can bring great joy. Each orientation has a benefit to human flourishing and moving between them provides a richness to life.
The verb tense “past progressive” captures this “temporal self-continuity” of having a present sense of self that connects to the past and easily slips into the future. As a reminder from grammar school, a past progressive verb starts in the past but is ongoing. “We have been playing,” or “We have been praying.” As we move out of the pandemic, we will all hit some sort of restart button. The point will be not so much to jettison the past 15 months as to emerge from them. Studies on post-traumatic growth suggests that each of us will have found new personal strengths, a deepened sense of purpose, and improved relationships. To be honest, living so much in the present has made me grateful for the very small wins of a sunny Sunday afternoon, the silliness of our Boston Terrier puppy, and hugs with immediate family members. I don’t want to give up seeing the joy in small events even as life becomes more expansive. Looking to the future, I find myself experiencing excitement and trepidation now that I am mapping out my training schedule for the Tucson marathon in December. I am grateful to have started going on long runs without a mask and to let go of the nagging fear and guilt that I was exposing myself and loved ones to an invisible killer every time I ventured outside. Apart from running, I’m looking forward to moving out of survival mode to think and pray more deeply about my future sense of purpose and calling.
Beginning to live again with intentionality to move between the past, present, and future allows God, “to teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”4 I’m looking forward to a future full of living in the past progressive.
- Philip G, Zimbardo and John N Boyd. “Putting Time in Perspective: A Valid, Reliable Individual-Differences Metric.” Journal of personality and social psychology 77.6 (1999): 1271–1288.
- The relationship between age and time orientation is not straight forward. See Laura Carstensen. “The influence of a sense of time on human development.” Science 312 (2006), 1913–1915.
- Maciej Stolarski, Nicolas Fieulaine, and Wessel. van Beek, Time Perspective Theory; Review, Research and Application: Essays in Honor of Philip G. Zimbardo (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2015).
- Psalm 90:12