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The Last Next Best

I wonder what it is about humans that we crave a better next.

Twice a week, the ritual occurs. My sons, who are respectively 4 and 6, brace themselves on either of my knees, and we male-bond over the faint green glow of the Microsoft Xbox. Having the early revelation that my sons had a proclivity toward gaming, I decided to inextricably link the machine in question to father-son time. I have set aside 2 to 4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday that I am in town since they were infants. They have no frame of reference for gaming as a loner activity. In their minds, it is something you do with your brother and father, loudly—yelling at the television and running around the room vicariously as the character on the screen. So vicariously, in fact, that for a season, my son asked that I (seriously) call him Jackson Pacman Pacman Mark Steele. Yes: Pacman twice. It was very important to him.

The only real challenge to this sort of structure is that now our week is divided into two periods: 1) the four hours of Xbox time, and 2) the 164 hours I am asked how many more hours remain until Xbox time. This second period begins at 4:07 p.m. on Sunday. And it is a period that can only be described as obsessive.

An actual conversation last year:

ME: Who can tell me what Saturday is?
JACKSON: XBOX TIME!
ME: Well, yes. But Saturday is also Christmas.
JACKSON: Oh.

(pause)

But—Xbox, too. Right?

As I said. Obsessive. Every action throughout the “non-X 164” is merely an obstacle to overcome in order to get to Xbox time. When we walk the mall, both boys lag about three yards behind. They must move slower, they inform me, because if they step on anything but the brown floor tiles, they will fall into the lava. Obsessive.

But who am I to judge? Whether I realize it daily or not, I have a tendency to base my actions, expectations and (gulp) even my faith on what is forthcoming instead of what I am currently giving attention toward. As much as I would like to think I am one who thrives on the current experience, I tend to ignore the experiential moment in favor of the expectation of the next.

This is prevalent in my entire family. My wife digs minutely through the bowl of popcorn kernels, literally seeking out the next best instead of enjoying the one presently in her mouth. My daughter, Morgan, will enter the kitchen, smell dinner cooking on the stove, look at my wife with a straight face and ask, “What’s for breakfast tomorrow?”

I wonder what it is about humans that we crave a better next.

In all that each day holds to be joyful of, thankful for or satisfied in, why do we tend to focus on the less thans? Instead of finding the miracle and hidden joy in the moment, we dwell on the worry of lack, the frustration of not yet or the dissatisfaction of have not.

Certainly this attitude is most prevalent in those who reside in the modern subculture of faith. That we have given that term a connotation equivalent to the expectation of gift baskets. We treat faith as an oncoming Christmas bonus rather than as what it truly is designed to be: a challenge. A dare that leads to truth. The risk to live beyond what is tangible and clear—but to live in that place right now. Regardless of what we lack, regardless of what difficulties lie before us. To live in the place of trusting that God’s plan is beyond the confusion in the difficult right here. Instead, we thrive on idignancy:

• Why don’t I have a better job?
• Why don’t I make more money?
• Why doesn’t my spouse meet my needs more?
• Why doesn’t God answer my question?

In the category of “things that make you go ouch,” the realization of how much our actions communicate ingratitude to God is definitely in the top three. It rarely dawns on us that the better job might actually be a different perspective on the current job. That we may need to manage our spending instead of make more money. That we may not be meeting our spouse’s needs, therefore causing them to create distance. That God is trying to answer our question through our current situation, but we aren’t paying attention, too busy daydreaming of the upcoming utopia.

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Current hardships will always stimulate personal growth the exact moment we begin to plow through them and deal with today. But the unfortunate truth is that we don’t want to grow and change as much as we simply want to be comfortable. The only way to be comfortable is to pretend. Pretend that today’s bad is yesterday’s news and instead wile the hours away in the fantasy of the next best. But God is not the God of someday maybe. He is the God of deal with it now. Why?

Simple. Because later is about us and now is about them.

It is the nature of the human condition to be completely overwhelmed with our own well-being. To be afraid of going without or accomplishing little. But neither of these fears has anything to do with what truly fulfills us or causes us to grow. It is only through the way we deal with the other people in our lives that our calling is made clear. That our character is refined. That our questions find answers. That our future intersects with our present. But we cannot deal with those hurting around us if we are only focused on the hurting version of ourselves that lives in the near distant future.

Of course, there are days when I would much rather daydream of the afternoon three days hence that I will get lost in the soft glow of the Xbox. There are some days so difficult that I could practically live in those daydreams, pretending I am Pacman dodging the lava. The only problem is that my true future grows further and further away with every now I waste imagining what could be.

Instead, I choose to observe where, who, when, why and what I am right now. Dealing with the present tense before the tension mounts even higher. At least, I will after one last imagination. Call it a motivator. A brief vision of what it might be like someday in the near future when I am able to live and learn and grow through the hardships each day as they come. If you don’t mind, I will take that moment now.

I’ll call it my last next best.

Mark Steele is the author of Flashbang: How I Got Over Myself (Relevant Books). He also serves as president and executive creative of Steelehouse Productions.

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