Life's Present Tense.
GRAMMAR, in our school days, was the desert of Sahara. In its dreary sand realm of rule and form grew no single flower of human interest. How differently it opens to us in these later years ! Grammar, we find, is a page out of the soul. Its every line is burdened with the mystery, lit with the romance of the human spirit. Take a list of pronouns. In its "I," "Thou," " He " we have man's dawning sense of himself and his neighbour. A verb's moods open all the unfathomables of volition and responsibility ; its tenses confront us with the stupendous problem of Time. What is the real meaning of " Now "; and how is it related to a "then" and a "to be"? Our grammar study may concentrate itself on this point. There is enough in it to keep us busy.
We are approaching these themes to-day from some startlingly fresh standpoints. For ages men have, for instance, mused upon the transitory, upon the impossibility of holding the present moment, of calling "halt to the eternal flux. Physical research has now its own say on the matter. It shows us how the sense of change is necessarily intertwined with our consciousness, for there could be no consciousness without it. Every state of feeling is the result of an impact of object on subject, a play of oppositions. Our knowledge of our-selves and the world results from an incessant movement in the primordial mind-stuff, in which, during every second of time, thousands of infinitesimally small changes, of readjustments of fleeting groups of pulsations, are taking place. Our sense of a present that never stops with us, that is ever ceasing to be a present, has, then, one of its origins in the physical conditions of thinking. Our " now " cannot abide with us because the very thought of it is itself a movement. From another side, then, than that along which Tennyson approaches the theme, we reach his conclusion :
Thus Our weakness somehow shapes the shadow, Time.
But our Time relation has of late set men thinking in other and perhaps less profitable directions. We have revivals of the old meta-physical objections to the Christian outlook derived from the ideas of existence and succession. When, for instance, we speak of personal survival in a future life, we are asked, " Survival of what ? Survival of our childhood, of our youth, of our manhood or of our old age ? Why this talk of an after life, when by the mere process of living, if we are old enough, three-parts of us are already dead ? Where is our childhood? Why do we not clamour for that ? What is gone is for ever gone." From another side, Life's Present Tense is used as an argument against the Divine Goodness. " What use," we are asked, " is it to point to some possible state of future felicity as a set-off against the evil and misery of the present ? That to-morrow may be good is no answer to the fact that today is bad. If God's world is evil now, a coming millennium takes no blackness from the present fact."
Plainly, if we constitute ourselves the vindicators of the universe as against all comers, we have enough on our hands. Our role is assuredly not that. With a good conscience we can leave the universe to take care of itself. We cannot, however, help thinking that the objectors here, the new as well as the old, might conceivably have found a healthier occupation. As to the non-survival argument, our own experience supplies, surely, the best answer. Its message is that while, in one sense, our past has gone, in another it most truly lives with, us. For our man-consciousness holds in itself our child-consciousness, while old age contains both. The "now " of the actual life is never only the present moment. It is a compound, a distillation. Its essence is an extract of all that has gone before. The argument, then, as regards a future life gains reinforcement rather than opposition from the time sense. Its suggestion is, under new conditions, of a further sublimation, in which the resultants of all the phases of the old life shall combine into a new and higher whole.
And to those who bring life's present tense, with its apparent evil, as a charge against God and His world, and who admit no plea of a coming better in mitigation, the answer is practically the same. Their " now " is a fictitious one. For there is no such thing as a present without a future. As Schiller has it, " all is fruit and all is seed." The " to come " is not only ahead of the existent, but is in it and a part of it. The one would not be itself without the other. And the soul is deeply conscious of this, and in the highest tumult of the outward is sure of its good. " My body," says a modern thinker, "weeps and sighs, but a something in me, which is above me, rejoices at everything." When Walt Whitman, in his daring fashion, declares, " I say there is in fact no evil, or if there is, I say it is just as important to you or to me as anything else," he means practically this. The totality to which we belong, including all to which it tends, as well as all from which it comes, is a good at which the soul rejoices. The Areopagite, the old Greek Christian thinker, whose thought ruled so many ages, in declaring that evil was a shadow, a non-being, a finite to set off the perfection of the Infinite, sounds the same note. A German poet thus re-echoes it today
"Everything inferior is a higher in the making, everything hateful a coming beautiful, everything evil a coming good. And we see it, all incomplete as it is, and laugh and love it."
On ultimate questions we shall perhaps not get much nearer than that. Meanwhile, Life's Present Tense suggests matters more immediate to ourselves. Our own age is not strong in its appreciation of the present tense. In its desperate chase after what it has not, the question might occur whether, as Goethe so profoundly says, " we are not farthest from the object of our desires when we imagine we possess that which we desire." A man consumes his life in gaining wealth, and finds at the end that he has lost the power of enjoying it. He postpones his happiness till to-morrow ; he forms the habit of so doing, until the postponement becomes sine die. Meanwhile the world men are rushing through without stopping to observe it belongs really to him who has learned that "Now is the accepted time." The whole art of living, properly considered, is the art of the present moment. "Can this hour be sordid," I ask, " when it is a piece of God's eternity ? " If God is not Love at this moment, He never was or will be. If that Love is not filling me at this moment with its own heaven that is my fault. To pure minds there are no sordid moments, and there is no sordid world. What fools we are not to taste our " now," to feel its whole content, to distil from it the wonders, the mysteries, the ecstasies that lie there !
To extract this savour of the moment re-quires the perpetual discipline and enlargement of the soul. We cannot taste time's full flavour till we have pierced through to something that is beyond time. As a mediaeval thinker puts it, "Our passing life that we have here in our sense-soul knoweth not what our Self is." Spinoza, the Jew grinder of lenses, who refused a fortune in order to conserve his inner wealth, had mastered the lesson. To love only the perishable, says he, means strife, envy, hatred and fear, while "to love the eternal and infinite feeds the mind with pure joy, and is wholly free from sorrow." When we have reached this point, of seeing the Divine in the present and the actual, we are free of the universe. We belong no longer to that category of men who, in Emerson's words, "seem as though whipped through the world, the hacks of invisible riders." Rather are we of those who, to quote a modern philosopher, "have a degree of existence at least ten times larger than others who, in other words, exist ten times as much."
There is one sphere is which life's grammar of the present tense imperiously calls to be mastered, if we would avoid failure's deepest hell. It is that of the affections and of the family. We burn to reconstruct the characters of our acquaintance and kinsfolk, and forget that, just as they are, they are full of a lovableness which only our prejudices hide, and which we shall see as with a flash when it is gone from us. How many are there in the plight of Marie Bashkirtseff when she says of her mother : "I believe she is really fond of me, and I am really fond of her too, but we cannot be two minutes together without irritating one another to tears." "Nevermore," the saddest word in language, gains tenfold bitterness when uttered of an intercourse snapped by death, where love has failed of its expression.
For she is in her grave, and oh ! The difference to me !
is then the cry from a tragedy too great for words.
The full appreciation of the present tense is one of the privileges of the later years. Life, to the youthful palate, is a somewhat raw and acrid product. It is full of froth and ferment, and has not had time to mature. It takes years for the liquor to clarify and gather its true relish. That is why a career of spiritual growth blossoms into such rare beauty towards the end. We say of such proficients what Morris sings, with a different application :
In such Saint Luke's short summer lived these men, Nearing the goal of three score years and ten.
They can say with a French wit, though with a better application, " le prends mon bien oł je le trouve." They eat and drink, not because "to-morrow we die," but because their day has a taste in it of eternity ; their to-morrow suggests not death, but life. Life's present tense is to them not only an existence, but a becoming. Half its joy is an aspiration. It holds a good which has only begun to be fulfilled. An old mystic has struck its note with a sweet exactness in the words : " I saw Him and sought Him ; I had Him and I wanted Him."
( Originally Published 1903 )
Ourselves And The Universe:
Our Moral Variability
The Escape From Commonplace
Of Spiritual Detachment
Life's Present Tense.
A Doctrine Of Echoes
Of Divine Leading
The Spiritual Sense
Our Thought World
Read More Articles About: Ourselves And The Universe