There are many encouragements these days to “live in the present moment.” My smart-ass side wants to ask, “Is there a choice?” Yes, apparently there is. We can, and I guess do, spend much of our time in the past or the future. Whether glorifying or regretting the past; worrying about or looking forward to the future.
Consider this from the philosopher Blaise Pascal, Pensee No. 47 (quoted by author Richard Beck).
We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that to not belong to us, and do not think about the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away…
We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, and the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.
Ah yes. And since Pascal wrote that 400 years ago, this is not apparently a modern malady, but an enduring human challenge.
I note my own lifelong tendency to think that things will be different, better, whole at some future time or place. But I also note — as I grow older — that this is changing. I am aware of a different and growing awareness. I’m not quite sure how to put it. Here’s a shot:
Since it’s summer and most summers include a backpacking trip or two, I take a trip, a wonderful trip, I think that next year or some future year will be even better. I’m beginning to realize that is may not be true. There may be — I hope there will be — future trips in the wilderness still to come. But maybe not? And maybe something already or presently experienced will neither be reproduced or exceeded.
Or, in another example, we have a group of friends who have come annually (until last year) for a short week at the Wallowa cabin together. And I have another group, clergy friends, who convene somewhere each year (until last year) for a short week together. Part of me just kind of assumed things like this would just keep on going forever and ever and even getting better — whatever that means — in the future.
The pandemic and aging have led me to question those not very wise, largely unexamined, assumptions. Things change. Sometimes radically. Things end, including lives. Things don’t always get better in the future. If they do, it’s a bonus not a certainty. So . . . live where Pascal says we tend not to — in the present.
This is not bleak or depressing. Because of the pandemic and mortality, I feel an increasing awareness of the preciousness and uniqueness of the moment, the need to live “in the present.” I feel less likely to “wander about in times that do not belong to me” (Pascal). Maybe I’m doing a little better at living in the present moment. Although I’m not sure “trying real hard” is the way to get there. Maybe it’s by not trying that we enter that enchanted destination?