Of all God’s creatures, why do only humans worry about the future?

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

My friend was conversing with me as my mother once did shortly after my father’s death. He was speaking with me, but his eyes were focused to his side, where he seemed to be studying a future that seemed much too stark. Sometimes people want to be consoled or at least do not resent it, yet they cannot take their eyes from the terrors they see coming.

He was back in the hospital in what is sometimes called a swing bed. Aptly named because his future might go either way. Maybe he will get better and be able to return home. Maybe not. Maybe this room or someplace like it will be home for the rest of his life.

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We talked about living day to day, about putting one’s trust and confidence in the Lord. I would have said that this is what our faith is all about. We ready ourselves for the coming trials, which no man or woman can avoid. We put our trust not in ourselves but in the Lord.

My friend listened, but he also repeated a story, something that his friend Russell had said to him. They were visiting shortly before Russell had died of cancer but not long after the dying farmer had had to bury his son.

“Father,” my friend said, “Russell came to see me, shortly before he died, and he said to me, ‘You know, they say that God never gives you more than you can handle, but I don’t know. I just don’t know.’ Father, Russell was as good of a Baptist as a man could be. I don’t know what that counts for, but it’s got to count for something. And if a Baptist, as good as Russell was, could ask that, well, it worries me. I’m not that strong. Maybe God does give us more than we can handle. Maybe not, but a person’s got to ask.”

The Scriptures insist that no man or woman can grow so powerful, so rich, as to live securely in face of the future.

“Yes, a person’s got to ask,” I replied. “And a person’s got to pray.”

“But that’s my other problem. I can’t seem to pray. I can’t focus.”

“St. Teresa of Avila said that those are our best prayers—the ones God values the most. We know we aren’t praying well, attentively, but we do our best. That’s pleasing to God.”

“I hope so, because I’m surely not doing well in my prayers.”

“And this is the time in which you count on us, the rest of the church, to pray for you, to lift you up. We all pray in the power of the Spirit.”

Having voiced his fear, my friend softened and said, “You know, Father, it’s that little child thing. I’m an old man, and I’m becoming like a little child. God is the only hope that I have.”

“And if I may also mention Scripture, you are not far from the kingdom of heaven.”

“You think so?”

“I know so. Because becoming the little child is where all of us are trying to get, have been trying to get, all of our lives. You’re afraid, but you’re opening yourself to the Lord. That’s what’s supposed to happen.”

“I hope so. I hope that was true for Russell as well.”

“So do I.”

In the life of every long-lived man and woman, the future flows into promise, then fades into peril and panic.

Of all the creatures on earth, only we humans wrestle with the future. Our minds, our imaginations, never stop painting a picture of the future, for good or woe. Young people see the future as the place where most all of what is desired in life will surely come their way. Old people see the future as stripping them of all they have gained in life.

The Scriptures insist that no man or woman can grow so powerful, so rich, as to live securely in face of the future. It belongs to God.

Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Mk 13:31-32).

Yet the Scriptures also insist that our final futures lie in the hands of a God who loves us.

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.
But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever (Dan 12:2-3).

Sacraments can be thought of as signposts of the future. We receive them as we set forth on the journey. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

In the sacraments the Church already receives a foretaste of eternal life, “while awaiting the blessed hope, the appearing in glory of our great God and savior, Christ Jesus” (Tit 2:13) (No. 232).

In baptism, we begin a life of faith. For many of us, confirmation comes as we embrace the freedoms that characterize the days of youth.

We might think of confession as closing the door to sin, but anyone who knows the power of the sacrament remembers the joy of walking out of the confessional door into a life made new.

Each of the sacraments echoes baptism. They bless us as we set out.

Through marriage or ordination we enter into a lifetime of loving union or service to others. Each of these sacraments echoes baptism. They bless us as we set out.

All sacraments sound out again our baptism. We anoint the sick because we want them to renew their confidence in the Lord. We want the Lord to reach out and to touch them because the time of trial has come.

We return to Eucharist as often as we can because, at each moment of the journey, faith is all about walking into a tomorrow that we cannot control. As Shakespeare’s Ophelia puts it in “Hamlet,” “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be” (4.5.42-43).

In the life of every long-lived man and woman, the future flows into promise, then fades into peril and panic. That is when we must become like little children. That is when we must be born again. That is when Scripture and the sacraments become sword and armor.

At that time there shall arise
Michael, the great prince,
guardian of your people;
it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress
since nations began until that time.
At that time your people shall escape,
everyone who is found written in the book
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.
But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever (Dan 12:1-3).

Readings: Daniel 12:1-3 Hebrews 10:11-14, 18 Mark 13:24-32

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher McNally
3 weeks 5 days ago

Animals are blessed to live in the moment. They do not worry about the future or regret the past. Although they remember the past and react in the present based on those remembered experiences, they don't ask themselves why they weren't a better pet, or a better parent to their offspring, or what they could have done to become better hunters or better food gatherers or nest builders. Nor do they carry the burden of wondering how they will become better pets, better parents, better offspring, better mates. Is this retrospective and prospective thinking about mistakes and challenges what Genesis described as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Bruce Snowden
3 weeks 2 days ago

I don't think only humans worry about the future, otherwise why do all animals flee at the approach of peril? isn't running in fright simply another life-protecting device all animals including humans used as needed protecting future potential?
Vegetation too 'look out protectively" for one another as an article in AMERICA a few weeks ago asserted. Look it up for some interesting reading. I believe the Creator takes care protectively of all the works of His Hand, not just some. Divine Providence is a gift for all. As Saint JPII repeatedly reminded all, "Do not be afraid." God cares for all! Fleeing when endangered is one manifestation of Divine Providence. So is seems to me, to be.
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