My granddaughter Alex, like any self-respecting two-year-old, had developed a formidable sweet tooth. My wife and I spent five days with her on an extended babysitting assignment in Brooklyn, where she lived with our son and his wife. We took her to the playground every morning, and on the way back home she would want to stop at the neighborhood bakery for a cookie. Or she would steer us to a nearby Dunkin' Donuts, which had doughnuts with pink icing, her favorite. In the late afternoons we were back at the playground, and she might agitate for a vanilla cone with sprinkles from the ice cream truck parked at the curb. Knowing that Alex sorely missed her Mommy and Daddy, we were inclined to indulge her. Happily, grandparents are not expected to instill a proper appreciation of deferred gratification in the two-year-olds under their temporary care. We were also aware that her normally sweet disposition could be anything but if her craving for sweets were denied.
Having raised two sons, we could certainly appreciate the virtues of deferred gratification, which eliminates a major source of annoyance with children and eventually renders them fit for productive society. Yet I have found – at least in certain matters of the spirit -- that this lesson is sometimes learned only too well. Among other things, deferred gratification has enabled believers to swallow their disappointments in life in the fond hope of a happier resolution in the world to come. The problem of evil becomes altogether less vexing when considered in relation to a system of eternal rewards and punishments. But what if there is no world to come? And even if there is, so what? Our problem is that we all want to live forever, but we never learn how to live right now.
My granddaughter didn’t understand why she couldn’t get everything she wanted immediately, because for her right now was all there was. But soon a clock would start running in her head, and she would learn to navigate the past and future as well. Then the fateful day would arrive when her pet goldfish Moby died or she would spot a dead squirrel in the park, and she discovered that the clock doesn’t run on forever – not for Moby, not for the squirrel, not even for herself.
Recoiling from the prospect of our own end, we take refuge in comforting fantasies about eternity, which we confuse with unending time. “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles,” Thoreau once wrote. By succession, he meant that we have segmented life into past, present and future, moving from one moment to the next in relentless progression until there are no more moments. In our rage to live, we are like a glutton who swallows everything and savors nothing. There is no real nourishment in this. Soon enough we start to imagine that we have seen it all before, not realizing that every moment is sui generis. “This is still the morning of creation,” the naturalist John Muir once rhapsodized. There is no need to preoccupy ourselves with the world to come. For those who are fully absorbed in the present moment, the world we are living in right now is already a world without end, right up until our final breath.
Henry David Thoreau, "The Over-Soul"
John Muir, Travels in Alaska