Fear of the Future

The beasts have an advantage over us when it comes to suffering. They breathe and bleed as we do, but their suffering is physical, not spiritual. It’s confined to the moment. An animal can feel as much physical pain as we do, but it doesn’t live in fear of pain. Whatever else it might port, an animal doesn’t carry the burden of the future on its back.

We tell ourselves not to worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes. True enough, but fear of the morrow, worry about the future, is an uniquely human form of suffering that never leaves us, the dark side of the wonderful gift that is imagination.

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There’s just such a brooding moment in Elizabeth Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge. An old woman comes home from visiting a nursing home, where she has spoon-fed mashed potatoes to her husband, the town pharmacist and the recent victim of a debilitating stroke. Looking for a momentary distraction from her life, from her fears for the future, she comes across photos of her family, and she can’t help but to look back into the past with an awareness of the future that was to come.

One evening when she returned home, she looked through a drawer of old photographs. Her mother, plump and smiling, but still foreboding. Her father, tall, stoic; his silence in life seemed right there — he was, she thought, the biggest mystery of all. A picture of Henry (her husband) as a small child. Huge-eyed and curly-haired, he was looking at the photographer (his mother?) with a child’s fear and wonder. Another photo of him in the navy, tall and thin, just a kid, really, waiting for life to begin. You will marry a beast and love her, Olive thought. You will have a son and love him. You will be endlessly kind to townspeople as they come to you for medicine, tall in your white lab coat. You will end your days blind and mute in a wheelchair. That will be your life.

Olive slipped the picture back into the drawer, her eye catching a photo of Christopher (her son), taken when he was not yet two. She had forgotten how angelic he’d looked, like some creature newly hatched, as though he had not yet grown a skin and was all light and luminescence. You will marry a beast and she will leave you. Olive thought. You will move across the country and break your mother’s heart. She closed the drawer (161).

In real life, we find ourselves wishing for just such an awareness. We’d like to know the future, better to face what comes next. Would that we could look into the present, like some future person gazing at an old photo, and know what it to come.

Not knowing the future, and not being able to stop worrying about it, is a form of stress unique to human beings. We suffer from fears that will never be realized. So often our fear of the future is worse than anything that actually comes our way, and, because we cannot stop brooding over the morrow, fears that do come true begin to afflict us long before they even exist.

As one like us in all things save sin, Jesus also experienced that uniquely human form of suffering that is fear of the future. When we hear him predict, as he does in Saint Luke’s Gospel, that "the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised" (9:22) we tend to presume, because of his divinity, a level of awareness that, if it were true, would essentially cancel his humanity. We naively presume that Jesus walked this earth with all of the consciousness of God: he knew everything a human being could know, even modern day Spanish and English, or the results of future World Series. We suppose that he would know every detail of his coming death.

But such an understanding of the consciousness of Jesus is speculation and probably inaccurate, because it would preclude living a truly human life, one that must bear the burden of an unknown future. Much more likely is that, in lowering himself to become a human being, Jesus also took on the burden of our uncertainty, the weight of our tomorrows. Thus, aware of his mission and with a growing understanding of its consequences, he too began to fear what the future would bring. That makes the faith he showed all the greater. He walked towards tomorrow without fully knowing what was to come, convinced that nothing could separate him from his Father’s love.

We must do the same, or, at the least, pray for the grace to do the same. "The future’s not ours to see," but fear of the future is ours to bear. We must carry that weight as Christ did, with great confidence in the one who loves us and who revealed the depth of his love in the suffering’s Christ bore, sufferings he knew even before he felt the weight of the cross.

Zechariah 12: 10-11, 13:1 Galatians 3: 26-29 Luke 9: 18-24

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