Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? … So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Mt 6:25-27, 34).

A perplexing passage, this one. It’s been known to offer comfort in the midst of anxiety but also, when scrutinized, becomes impossible. Do not worry about tomorrow? Jesus, are you kidding?

In this week’s NYT Sunday Review, Martin E. P. Seligman and John Tierney show just how impossible Jesus’ command is. In “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” they argue that “prospection” — contemplation of the future, including planning it and worrying about it — is ingrained in the very fabric of human nature. It is the primary thing that distinguishes mankind from other animals: a chimpanzee, for example, may spend most of its time preparing for its next meal, but a human being spends his time dreaming of his next job, or her next house; or his summer vacation six months away, or her wedding that will happen eventually, sometime, in the future. Seligman and Tierney write:

Psychoanalysts believed that treating patients was a matter of unearthing and confronting the past. Even when cognitive psychology emerged, it focused on the past and present — on memory and perception.

But it is increasingly clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. Behavior, memory and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection.

In other words, we live in the future. We’re rebuilding our memories of who we were to accomodate who we want to be; we’re navigating our current jobs to accomodate what we want them to become. All that we do is through a prospective lens.

Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects.

Seligman and Tierney’s article is a fitting reminder that Jesus’ commandment, “do not worry,” cannot change the fact that we will, because we are Homo prospectus: people who contemplate the future.

But Jesus’s command, more than telling us what we should do, teaches us that in the end our prospects are slim. He’s like a distant uncle who sends you a graduation card that says, “Congrats, you’re still gonna die.” Even so, we have the incredible ability to deny this fact, though it is plain to us:

…there’s precious little evidence that people actually spend much time outside the lab thinking about their deaths or managing their terror of mortality. It’s certainly not what psychologists found in the study tracking Chicagoans’ daily thoughts. Less than 1 percent of their thoughts involved death, and even those were typically about other people’s deaths.

Homo prospectus is too pragmatic to obsess on death for the same reason that he doesn’t dwell on the past: There’s nothing he can do about it.

In this passage, Jesus is ultimately nudging us to consider that thing that we can do absolutely nothing about. On that final day, what will we have left? When there are no more summer vacations, no children to fuss over, what will we worry about? We’ll lay in the bed and ask the questions, Where will we go? Will we go? And if so, who will go with us?

As Psalm 39:4-7 says:

Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath…And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.

And that is where the gospel comes in: Not that we are freed when we finally learn to live in the now but that we are freed by the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. We are inveterate worriers, saved by grace, to whom God turns his face and says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”