Don’t you just love it when someone tries to help you gain perspective—perhaps by pointing out the proverbial silver lining or sharing their own experienced wisdom—when you’re trudging through a trying season?
Yeah. Me neither.
I would not like to count the number of times older parents have seen me with my baby and toddler and urged, with a wistful and sometimes verging on desperate tone to their voice: “Enjoy these years! Savor every moment! Time passes so quickly!”
While I have no doubt that this advice is well meant, it has never once accomplished what I can only assume was the giver’s intention: providing comfort or elucidating me in one way or another. Look, in the moments when I’m inundated by my toddler’s whines or my baby’s cries, my mind turns to mush. I can barely focus enough to choose between chunky and creamy peanut butter, let alone integrate the philosophical aphorisms of parents before me.
But if I’m going to disparage advice-giving strangers, I ought to honestly acknowledge that the number one culprit of uttering phrases like “savor the moment” is neither the grocery store cashier nor an elderly aunt. It’s me.
As I read “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” for the umpteenth time, the Little Engine’s chanting is joined by my interior monologue of “Savor this, savor this, savor this.” Remember the musty, sweet smell of my toddler’s hair. Relish the sensation of chubby baby hands patting my face. Fully experience the shouts of glee over the arrival of the garbage truck. Bask in these moments, because soon they will pass is the haunting refrain of my mental soundtrack.
Much to my regret, my unchosen mantra—not unlike the input of strangers—neither shifts my perspective in moments of challenge nor heightens my delight in the sweetness of the present moment. Instead it fills me with dread.
I’d guess that even as the disciples are amazed by Jesus’ ascension, they experience sadness at his departure.
I have by all objective accounts an optimistic outlook on life and an enthusiastic anticipation of the future. Yet my stomach unfailingly sinks every time I think about my daughters aging. As I imagine leg rolls disappearing, I’m filled with a nameless anxiety, a despairing over the future. It’s telling that the closest approximation I’ve found for my feelings comes from a poem about dying, where John Updike writes: “And another regrettable thing about death / is the ceasing of your own brand of magic. . . . Who will do it again? That’s it: no one.” When the unique enchantment of a particular phase of mothering is over, it’s over—that’s it: never to be experienced again. No amount of savoring the present will change the reality that time passes and that the passage of time includes loss.
As is often the case for me, faith doesn’t fix my troubles. It does, however, help me look at them with a little more perspective. In this instance, it’s the documented and imagined emotions of the disciples as they journey through the weeks between Good Friday and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that comes to my assistance. Here’s how I would summarize the events dotting that timeline—the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost—in terms of what they must have felt like to Jesus’ nearest and dearest: loss, elation, ambiguous loss, debatable joy. From my stance as a parent who experiences a lot more of the in-between and confusing kinds of emotions than the singularity of loss and elation, it’s the second half of the timeline in which I’m interested: the ambiguous loss of the ascension and the debatable joy of Pentecost.
By all reasonable accounts, Jesus’ ascension is a good thing. The Gospel of Luke tells us that after witnessing it, the disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy. But I have to wonder: How long did the joy last? Was it tinged with anything else? Taking a stab at it, I’d guess that even as the disciples are amazed by Jesus’ ascension, they experience sadness at his departure and anxiousness when considering the uncertainty of their future.
It’s not unlike how I feel when one of my daughters leaves behind a phase of life. Take, for instance, early infancy. There’s no denying that there are thrilling aspects of exiting the so-called fourth trimester, including the emergence of gummy smiles and the longer stretches of nighttime sleep. Yet it’s around this time when the milky newborn smell starts to evaporate, the swaddles get packed away, and the sleepy little baby who snoozed on my chest for hours becomes too alert to think of sleeping anywhere but her crib. As a chronic worrier who somehow alchemizes any negative emotion into apprehension, for me these losses are anxiety-producing as well as sad. What if I never get to sleep with a baby on my chest again? What if the newborn weeks were the peak of my mothering experience? What if tragedy befalls us and something horrific abruptly halts what I’ve just recently discovered as my true vocation?
You can’t know what the future holds. But you aren’t in this alone.
I’m not so unlike the disciples in the Acts of the Apostles’ account of the ascension. They pepper Jesus with questions about the future as he prepares to leave them. That’s why Jesus’ response to the disciples feels relevant to me: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by [God’s] own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:7–8).
In other words, “You can’t know what the future holds. But you aren’t in this alone.”
For the disciples, Pentecost comes, and they are seized by the Holy Spirit, fueled to preach the good news with the gifts of courage, wisdom, understanding, and more. It’s extraordinary and wonderful, but you know something else? It isn’t Jesus. Even as the disciples are inspired and energized, I bet they still miss their teacher and friend and wonder about their future.
And I guess that’s what I like about the Good Friday to Pentecost timeline: Even as it reminds us that we’re never alone, it doesn’t provide an easy antidote to the problem loss renders inevitable due to the passage of time. Instead it demonstrates just how hard it is to say goodbye to what is good and to remain open to the possibilities of the future. With these stories from our faith as my guiding light, maybe instead of relentlessly attempting to savor the present moment—and being endlessly chagrined that change never halts—I need to do what the disciples do: carry on. They know as well as anyone that life is full of loss and full of wonder, sometimes at the exact same moments, and they just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
This article also appears in the February 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 2, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pexels/Alexandr Podvalny