The recent blockbuster episode of the brilliant BBC series “Doctor Who” got me thinking again about the danger of “presentism” in today’s world.
Did you see the episode entitled “Day of the Doctor,” in which three different reincarnations of that lovable Time Lord, Doctor Who, come together to rethink and reshape the past, present, and future? The episode, marking a 50-th anniversary celebration of the ingenious series and (according to the Wikipedia article) a tribute to generations of Doctor Who fans called Whovians (I presume in Indiana we’re called Whoosiers), presented many unforgettable images and ideas. My favorite was the notion of capturing an entire scene, nay, an entire planet, in a moment of time, inside a picture frame, where so much has already happened, so much is ready to happen, but we’re told the viewer of this brilliant 4-D “painting” in a Time Lord’s gallery can “just add time” to bring the scene to life, as one “just adds water” to Lipton’s Cup-of-Soup.
I may never look at an art gallery the same way again. Every enduring work of art, I realize, is of its own time but is somehow of all time.
The reason I bring this up is the connection of this time-freezing to the compelling notion of “presentism,” to which I was introduced by Daniel Rushkoff’s recent book, Present Shock. The word presentism is not new, but it’s very thought-provoking. Rushkoff talks about how our modern society, with its advanced technology and rapid pace of life, makes life seem like everything is happening in the present. I haven’t read enough of Rushkoff’s insights to fully understand how he analyzes this phenomenon, but it coincides with an impression I’ve had for some time. When we want everything to happen right now, or when now is the only timeframe that matters, or when we pursue the titillation of a completely immersive now, we risk forgetting or discounting the past and the future. Our imaginations and faith, used constructively, help us transcend the traps of the present moment. The past and future are gifts from God, although they also impose accountability upon us.
It has been my privilege to write a book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Hesburgh Library and to see how the building, its people, and its role on the Notre Dame campus literally and figuratively bring past, present, and future together. This coincidence of three timeframes is the stuff of journeys and stories. It gives the Notre Dame campus its traditions, its lively celebrations of victory and discovery, and its focus on people and projects representing hope for the future.
Presentism, if I understand Rushkoff’s insights correctly (and I hope to study them more carefully in the near future!), poses a danger even as it seems to offer an alluring opportunity to live in the moment–an immensely exciting, adrenalin-charged moment–and then to move on in a series of random, disjointed, busy moments. Here’s my thought as it relates to communicating messages about society, about human life, about Notre Dame, and even about Doctor Who. I think Time Lords would agree that isolating present moments inside picture frames must be the exception, not the rule, even though those frozen scenes of potential energy are hauntingly beautiful. In everything we do, in every story we tell, we must be energized by the changing times, not mesmerized by a single moment. We Whoosiers can embrace the Doctors’ advice to embrace the learning that occurs in its own good time, from past to present to future. There can be immense energy (and human efficiency and divine grace) in the present moment, but don’t get trapped in it. Just add time.