The older I get, the more I find myself focusing on what is rather than what may be.
Among the many accommodations I’ve learned to accept during my seventh decade, perhaps the most surprising has been the recalibration of hope. It’s not so much about the future anymore.
At least not my future. Like any other aging parent, I wish the best for my children and grandchildren, hope they fulfill all their dreams. But as my own horizon recedes more haltingly, I find myself hewing more closely to what is rather than what may be. Feeling my bare feet hit the bedroom floor each morning delivers some level of wish fulfillment.
I was reminded of this shifting mindset the other day when I chanced upon an essay by Kate Bowler in the New York Times. Bowler, a Duke Divinity School associate professor, describes how a cancer diagnosis at 35 altered her perception of time — and her notion of hope.
“Time did not point to the future anymore,” she writes. “It was looped: start treatment, manage side effects, recover, start treatment. I lived in the present tense.”
Her Christian colleagues offered assurances that her trials would ultimately end with a rendezvous with the divine, a prospect Bowler found less than therapeutic. As her health continued to falter and she imagined leaving her husband and baby behind, she began to view the idea of hope as “an end without an ending.”
“I was confident that hope had its uses, but I began to think of it as a kind of arsenic that needed to be carefully administered. As far as I was concerned, it poisoned the sacred work of living in the present: taking my medication, asking about a friend’s terrible boyfriend, and counting my son’s eyelashes as he slept in my arms. I wanted to be alive until I was not.”
But as much as Bowler tried to remain in the present, life’s obligations kept pushing her to consider the cliff that was her future. It was, ironically, her illness that eventually cured her of any attachment to life beyond the now.
“In losing my future, the mundane began to sparkle,” she explains. “The things I love — the things I should love — become clearer, brighter. This is transcendence, the past and future experienced together in moments where I can see a flicker of eternity.”
Bowler avoids assembling the resolutions the new year demands, opting instead to highlight the “small miracles” that have surprised and sustained her in the recent past: befriending her oncology nurse, feeling God’s love even while trapped in the hospital, realizing her son never notices her fatigue.
I’ve never been one to concoct resolutions either; the exercise requires a level of aspiration that I’ve rarely bothered to pursue. Besides, ambition tends to wane as the years accumulate, the certainty of tomorrow becomes more suspect, and the utility of hope becomes more questionable. That may seem like a pretty hopeless approach to life, but just as it invited Bowler to discover the beauty of the mundane moment, it’s taught me the value of staying awake to the present — regardless of what it brings — secure in the knowledge that it’s all we really have.
And, while I suspect I may always harbor some vague expectation that I’ll be around to witness tomorrow morning, my only real hope is that I’ll recognize my bare feet hitting the bedroom floor as the small miracle it is.