Will Scott: When time stands still

Will Scott, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton

I time-travelled recently.

Not really. But I did visit some old friends who I hadn't seen in a couple of years. The time-travel part comes from how quickly you feel like you did when you were last together. In a way, it's not like you haven't seen each other for years; it's more like your friend has been in another room and the conversation picks up right where you left it.

All of a sudden you are 10, 20 or 30 years younger. You're where you were when you were last together. Maybe you're subconsciously acting out a persona that you thought you had left behind -- the self you outgrew that you find still lives somewhere inside you. It's like what happens if you go to your parents' house after a long absence; or a trip to your high school reunion; or revisiting the site of a wedding, vacation or important event. You remember who you were. You even feel who you were because the memories are so strong.

That feeling is probably illusion, because you can never go back to where you were; you can only visit it for a while. We live in that paradox of memory. We can "be" somewhere else, but we're not really there, not anymore.

The Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert points out that we're usually bad at predicting what we'll be like in the future, too. We think we'll look like ourselves, and maybe we will (if grayer and a bit heavier). Says Gilbert, we also like to assume that we know what we'll feel like, or who we'll become. Instinctively we know this is only something we can guess. But Gilbert says that there is a tendency to think about our future self as somehow more real -- the person we will become. You can never really go back to the way things were before; and you can never really hasten to the place you want to go.

We probably wouldn't be happy if things never changed. But why, then, do we get so nostalgic?

C.S. Lewis once wrote a book called "The Screwtape Letters," imagining the kind of advice a demon might give to a young charge hoping to steal a soul away from God. (Interestingly, a clergyman without a sense of humor complained to the paper publishing the letters, wondering why someone was giving such "devilish advice.")

Screwtape, the one giving advice, talks about "The horror of the Same Old Thing" -- our great fear that nothing will change, and therefore we, as people, crave variety. Says Screwtape: "The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart -- an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change."

The demon laments the way the universe is ordered, claiming that God gives us the best of both worlds-- change and permanence: "He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme."

During our years we get the best of both worlds. Repeating the activities of the past, while discovering the new in them. Does it ever get old to hear birds start singing at the beginning of spring? (Maybe, it just depends how close they are to your window.) Something always changes. Something always remains.

A Christian word for this feeling might be repentance. We sin and fall short, and then we return to God. We go back to the place we were, we come back to where we're going, but each time it looks different. Each time we go back to our past we realize that the person we were before is far away; the person we are becoming is getting closer.

Maybe this is why God doesn't get tired of the same old thing in is. "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

Sometimes we go back, but in the end, we always go forwards -- to the Lord who from eternity decides to be with us, and never gets tired of it.

Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column generally appears the fourth Friday of the month.

React to this story: