No one would argue with the importance of living in the present. God designed creation so that we live and breathe in the present. When we lose current experience, we are only half alive. But here is the problem, and it's a huge one: Focusing only on the present is just as dysfunctional as focusing only on the future.
The entitlement mantra about the future is: Ignore the future and focus on today. But the Hard Way mantra is: Respect the future and let it guide today's experience. And why should we respect the future? Here are four reasons:
One Day You Will Experience Your Future
Your future is not "out there." Very soon, it won't be called the future; it will be called Now. And you'll experience it, feel it, touch it, and taste it, for better or worse.
The future certainly will arrive—and as much as possible, we want to think about the things that we will experience before they overtake us.
Think of it this way. Small children don't have the skills to truly understand the impact of the future. Their neurology and emotions are all about today and now. One of the roles of a good parent is to get children to consider the future. "If you bonk your little brother on the head, you'll be sitting in a time-out chair in the kitchen." The pleasure of dominating a sibling feels less inviting when a future of no freedom seems likely. This is why parents need to follow up on their promises about consequences for certain behavior. If your promises amount to empty threats, maybe because you feel tired, your child will learn that the future is not to be respected. All I have to do, he thinks, is get used to a nagging parent. But a competent parent imposes the consequence consistently so that the child actually experiences the future consequence as a present-day reality, and therefore respects it.
Adults too need to respect the future. We aren't bulletproof, any more than children are. In business, CEOs sign contracts in the present and need to honor them in the future even if circumstances change. If you are a young adult, your toned body will become more difficult to maintain as you age. As Rick Warren says, "I used to have a six pack, but then it turned into a keg."
Bill Hybels says that "we tend not to drift into better behaviors." He means that over time, our energy, our bodies, and our focus lose steam. That's just the nature of things. If you are over the age of thirty-five, look in the mirror after you shower. This truth will be evident. Because we do not tend to drift into better behaviors, we must constantly put resources northward to help combat this southward erosion of life. The older you get, the more time and effort you must devote to moving against the flow. Tomorrow is coming like a train, and you will experience either what it is like to jump on board and have a great ride or what it feels like to be left standing on the tracks with nowhere to go.
A Groundhog Day Life Doesn't Work
Let's look a little deeper into your present, the life you live today. You may be struggling with major difficulties. Or you may be in the okay range, where things aren't ideal but they're good enough. Or you may be enjoying a fantastic life.
No one wants a life of major struggle to continue forever. That would feel miserable and hopeless. And few people are content with just "okay" forever. That's just a halfway satisfying life; sooner or later, those with such a life wake up and think, I settled. And I paid a big price for it.
I don't even know anyone with a fantastic life who wants everything to stay the way it is forever. Even people with a great life still want growth, improvement, and change. And the most self-satisfied and complacent among us—such as the Pharisee in one of Jesus' parables, the man who said, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people" (Luke 18:11)—aren't seen in a positive light.
A life that does not change and improve is like the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray's character repeats his life over and over again until he becomes completely miserable. Even his successes become meaningless.
And that's why you must respect, consider, and act on your future. Because if you don't, your best possible case is Groundhog Day, where you, your relationships, your career, and your life stay stuck in a repetitive pattern. Same thoughts, habits, patterns, struggles, and activities. When you don't think in the present about the future, you get trapped in an endless loop.
My kids have friends who didn't leave for college after high school, though they could have. Nor did they find something meaningful to do in town. The result is that they have become objects of pity to their friends. Often they continue to hang out with much younger high school kids, reliving their "glory days," because that's where they got stuck emotionally.
Some of my own friends live in Groundhog Day. They don't spend energy on the future, such as where they will vacation next year or where they hope their kids will go to college. I find it hard to spend a great deal of time with them, because I see so much potential for them to develop their talents, find more passion, take risks, and experience transformational lives. Instead, I feel sadness, discouragement, and frustration for them.
Some of these friends have escaped the loop by starting to hang around people who draw their attention to the importance of their future (perhaps men and women in a great church or from a small group or a movement). And some have broken out of that wasteful pattern because they encountered great loss, such as a child on drugs or a divorce. But too many of them continue to play Bill Murray.
While Your Past Is a Closed Door, Your Future Is an Open One
Respect the future because it is not over and done, as is your past. It is yet to be decided, and there are so many possibilities. On the one hand, you can't undo the past. You can't change your mistakes, wins, and losses. That door is closed. On the other hand, you can learn from your past, and it can be redeemed in your growth and healing. But there is no "do over."
Not so with the future.
I'm a big believer in blue-sky thinking. With my business clients, I do a lot of "let's start with the ideal" brainstorming about the company, its potential, and what might be possible. I'll set up a whiteboard and say, "It's a blank slate; fill in your future." Inevitably, creative, innovative, exciting ideas fill up the space. We are built to think about and get energy from the hope that comes from a bright future.
When this catalytic energy occurs, regardless of whether we're talking about your company or your personal life, it's bound to change your present behavior. You will be more strategic about how you spend your time, money, and energy. You will be more disciplined in how you choose your relationships. You will be driven and fueled by a hope for a much better future. When you respect the future, you dramatically increase your chances of attaining a better one.
The Magic of Compounding Today Creates a Great Future
Financial managers use the term "the magic of compounding" to describe a great benefit that accrues when you respect the future. When people save and invest well early in life, the money saved and earned increases at a high rate over time. When people begin to save later in life, they can't take as much advantage of the magic of compounding. Time is on your side when you save from an early age.
The magic of compounding is one variety of the concept of sowing and reaping. The better and earlier you invest your time, talents, and treasures, the better the rest of your life will be. Healthy marriages, families, careers, spiritual lives, and bodies are all the result of reaping from earlier "sowing." Early is always better.
A friend of mine who reviewed the manuscript for my book The Entitlement Cure told me about a client of hers whose motto was "one day at a time." This client wanted to be free of anxiety and dread over the future and wanted to keep her life simple. So she never saved, never watched her diet, and didn't study up on how to create and maintain great relationships. She literally lived one day at a time. Now in her later years, she is having great difficulty. Retirement will be a problem for her. She has diabetes from her poor eating habits and chaotic lifestyle. And she enjoys no stable relationships.
"One day at a time" is actually a helpful statement when used in context. I use it when I work with people in Alcoholics Anonymous who feel overwhelmed by their many life struggles. But you must balance "one day at a time" with being respectful of the future and guiding your daily decisions by how they will impact you tomorrow.
When we pay attention to all three time periods (past, present, and future), life goes well for us. The lessons of the past and an anticipation of the future guide our present's direction and tell us where we should put our energy and effort.