We millennials have been told all of our lives that pursuing a higher education was the way out of our respective neighborhoods, the necessary step to “have more than our parents did,” and an essential part of being ready to compete with an “ever growing job market.” Some of us have been on a life long journey to meet the expectations and standards set by the generation before us and when we fall short, the pressure can be insurmountable sometimes.
We spend so much time being concerned about what is coming that often times we miss the opportunities and moments right before us. In turn, some of us are so focused on the right now we’ve given little thought to tomorrow. It’s a balancing act of sorts, to take life one step at a time while remaining one step ahead, you know?
We toe the line of being able to take things one step at a time while remaining one step ahead. Learning to pace yourself yet be fiercely prepared for what is to come is a skill that many people struggle to master. Shifts in ideologies and schools of thought have been critical in analyzing what it truly takes to be successful; what is it that we can say about preparing for our future that we have not already heard? How do we demystify the unknown?
I find some semblance of understanding when I think about a story written by Qoheleth, the Jewish writer attributed to have written the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes. It is in this book where some of the most renowned pieces of wisdom literature, religious or otherwise, have taken its words to reshape our understanding of life and its purpose. Though there is no evidence that he studied Ecclesiastes, playwright William Shakespeare’s work has similar themes found in Ecclesiastes, one of a fleeting life worth living. The following words, spoken by a grieving Macbeth, speak to life’s evanescence:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale,
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Macbeth, Act V, Scene V)
Shakespeare offers even more insight (are we sure he didn’t study Ecclesiastes when writing this stuff?) in the play As You Like It when we learn that “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players.” Shakespeare follows the life of a (every) wo/man from a “puking” infant to a person who enters a “second childhood” “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
The wisdom that Qoheleth shares with us is plentiful and William Shakespeare’s ruminations live forever in the annals of literary history. I think the most important message that both authors send is simple: life is fleeting. One minute we’re here and the next, we’ve transitioned on to another life. What is to be said, then, about how we live our lives one step at a time and, at the same time, one step ahead?
This paradoxical idea of being present yet looking toward the future narrows the intent and purpose for which we live, doesn’t it? I mean, we’re keenly aware that the decisions we make today are happening in the now, but the reverberations of those decisions can last for generations. What we do now casts a picture of what our future will be, and sometimes we can lose our grip on our present reality. On occasion, we can be so consumed with getting to the next step that we are no longer present in the right now. We miss the opportunities to create lasting relationships or enjoy the process of living because we must get to the next step. In turn, everything we do is about today and tomorrow, simultaneously.
I remember being a burgeoning 20-something whose dreams were big and goals were lofty! I remember feeling like I was unstoppable and I knew what the hell I was doing; sage advise from parents or mentors seemed to go in one ear and out the other as I raged forward with my “this is what I will do TODAY!” plans – all the while thinking I had the future in mind, but realizing that I had no clue what the future would hold for me. What is this thing, this difficulty in being able to be present in today and conjecture what will happen in the future?
A 2010 report by the National Institute of Mental Health discovered the prefrontal cortex of our brains, the part that gives us the ability to reason, have foresight, and make good judgment calls, doesn’t fully develop until you reach age 20 or 21. Scientists note that this is the reason that teenagers and young adults seek out the “thrill” in life like trying out a new roller coaster, racing cars or experimenting with drugs and alcohol. While there may be a physiological deficiency in young adults (thought I can think of some 30, 40, and 50 year olds who have this difficulty, too!) there’s something to be said about being aware of how today’s decision impacts tomorrow’s future.
Taking the next step towards our future, it seems, has to be intentional. It cannot be a fly-by-night, roll the die, let’s-see-what-happens type of experience. It must be something that you do on purpose. We must forget what childhood shortcomings we may have lingering in our minds. We even have to overcome what struggles may have followed us into adulthood. We have to find a greater reason to push forward to do, as Ethicist Dr. Katie Cannon calls it, “the work our souls must have.” We must also remain present – be aware of our surroundings and the people and places that serve as the background to our life’s narrative. What moments we miss as we sprint after our futures, leaving invaluable memories behind.
This balance between being aware of today and mindful of the future offers us a stable grounding for addressing life’s most important decisions like career, love, money, and family. It’s a skill that we never stop learning how to master, a gift that continues to impart joy with every waking moment. What are some ways in which you are learning how to take life one step at a time while looking towards the future? What newfound truths can be discovered as you venture through life with the promise of a bright future serving as your guide? Feel free to leave your comments below!
“Just as we have two eyes and two feet, duality is a part of life.” (Carlos Santana)
–Alisha L. Gordon
Alisha is a rising third-year MDiv student and ESOL Writing Tutor at Candler. A 2004 graduate of Spelman College, Alisha has written for various online and print publications including Upscale Magazine, The Huffington Post, Hello Beautiful and her own personal blog Find the Pieces.