By Kelvin Smith
“Wait till next year!” is the cry of hope of every beleaguered sports fan. Yet there’s a different meaning of the phrase that can be the enemy of a satisfying life. That is the danger of putting things off to an imagined perfect future when all one’s dreams will come true: the man who spends all of his time at the office to provide for the family, the woman who puts off seeing her father until one more project is done. It’s easy to be so tomorrow-oriented that you forget to live today, and all too often the dreamed-for tomorrow never comes—the children grow up distant from a father who’s spent little time with them, the father dies before the daughter’s projects are all done. The latter situation happened to Sue Shellenbarger, the author of an article on this subject, “The Tomorrow Trap,” The Wall Street Journal, December 17, 1999, p. W1, who ironically is the Journal’s regular columnist on work and family issues.
As Ms. Shellenbarger noted, there are some aspects of life where deferral of gratification and planning for the future are important. If you spend all your money as soon as you get it, down the road you’ll run into serious trouble. Surviving suffering is easier if you can see the light of the end of the tunnel, and have confidence that the suffering will be redeemed. But these attitudes aren’t equally valuable in all aspects of one’s life.
The Tomorrow Trap isn’t quite the same thing as procrastination, though many people may struggle with both problems. But procrastination typically means putting off unpleasant tasks; the Tomorrow Trap is a matter of putting off things you enjoy because you’re waiting for some future perfect (or at least better) time to do it.
This is something that a lot of us singles struggle with. Because so many activities in our society (including in churches) have a strong couples or families orientation, it’s easy not to participate “until” we get married — it may feel awkward to be alone at an event where it seems like everyone else is part of a couple or a group, or it feels less enjoyable if you don’t have someone to share it with. One of the advantages of being married, assuming you marry someone who either shares your interests or is at least willing to participate in things you’re interested in, is that you have an automatic partner.
But putting our lives on hold until marriage means that we miss out on many of the good things life has to offer. It means that we don’t make use of some of the real advantages of being single: greater flexibility to take time with people, opportunities to travel (at whatever level of comfort you’re happy with — I wouldn’t have been able to backpack through Europe, or drive through the U.S. without motel reservations, with a family), missions trips, additional schooling (for a formal degree or just to learn a new skill: as the saying goes, it’s never too late to learn to play the piano), or whatever else.
Sometimes we also shrink back from steps that seem to imply that our single state is permanent. The best example is probably buying a home. To buy a house or condo on your own is a big step, and suggests that you may be there (by yourself) for a while.
Yet the opposite choice has its own subtext: Continually renting can imply that you’re not willing to make a commitment to the community (the neighborhood, the city, the church, and other organizations), or living with your parents may suggest you’re not willing to take responsibility for your own life. There can be other, perfectly valid reasons for those choices (renting may be a wiser choice financially depending on the housing market or future moving plans; you may live with your parents for financial reasons or because they need assistance in daily living tasks), but if you see buying a home as something that only married people (or single people who’ve given up hope of marriage) do, you’ve fallen into the Tomorrow Trap.
The most pernicious way to fall into the Tomorrow Trap, however, is simply by inattention. When I lived in Paris, I met lifelong Parisians who had never visited the Louvre museum. It was always there, and so there was no impetus to say, “Today is the day I’m going to go.” I knew I’d be there for only a short time, and so was eager to cram in everything, but now that I live near New York City, I rarely go to the museums, theatres, and other attractions there—it seems to be mostly when guests come to visit. Otherwise, each day just slides into the next. How do we avoid the trap?
“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24 NIV) Rejoicing in each day includes taking advantage of the opportunities God gives us, though that doesn’t mean running frantically from one activity to the next. Time for silence and solitude is a part of the rhythm of a well-balanced life, and something that singles have more opportunity for than married couples, and especially parents. But unless God has given you a special calling to the cloister, silence and solitude are meant to equip us for time in community.
Rejoicing in each day includes direct worship of God, alone and together; it includes receiving and using the good gifts God gives us, both spiritual and natural; it includes using our time for advancing God’s kingdom, whether by assisting in ministry, reaching out to those who don’t know him, or spending time with fellow believers. It means letting our schedule be interrupted, for a friend who needs an hour to talk or a neighbor who needs the snow shovelled from their sidewalk. While we are mindful of the future (1 Corinthians 15:19 reminds us Christianity is above all a hope-based faith), we don’t let that prevent us from living in the present.
Avoiding the Tomorrow Trap also means saying “No”. After all, we’re doing something else with the time that could be better spent in the “non-urgent but important” category of activities. It means not letting your job take over your life, not being a couch potato for six hours a day, not mindlessly spending hours surfing the web.
Instead, think of a friend you haven’t seen recently and invite them to lunch. Call a college friend on the other side of the country and catch up. Write a note of appreciation for a teacher who helped you on your way. Send flowers to your mother, not on her birthday, but just to brighten her day. Bake cookies, for yourself and someone else. Go to a concert or an art show (organize a group or enjoy it yourself). Read a “classic” book. Take a day for prayer and fasting. Make a special donation to a poverty relief organization. Start a singles group at your church. Reorganize your work responsibilities (or even find a new job) so you can work 40 rather than 80 hours a week (what good is the pay if you can never enjoy it?). Unplug the television for a week. Throw away the newspaper for a day. Turn off the computer.
In this way we can live a full and fulfilled life, enjoyed today and every day, honoring God and loving those around us, not regretting missed opportunities. It’s not too late to escape the Tomorrow Trap.