Life can be a frustrating dilemma between the past, present, and future. Which to prioritize, where to get hung up on. The past always looming, that great canon of knowledge, institution and existence, a shadowy hand in everything you do. But so does the future, dragging us away from the moment, forcing us to consider the long term, to search, aspire, and progress.
They inform our politics. Conservatives venerate the past, confusing the established with the right. Revolutionaries cast their anchors forward, always galloping towards a new utopia, ever gazing beyond the horizon. Zamyatin argued change had inherent virtue. That we should always be moving. The staidness of things — entropy — being the antipathy of good.
But this ever-speeding movement toward something — utopia, disaster, or individual goal — means we never live at all. The future doesn’t exist. It is always ahead. Time only exists as the present. Those that compulsively dream of utopia are the ones least satisfied when it actually comes about. By then they have new ideals and images in their heads, and they will have become the kind of person that cannot stand still. You know the type, wonderfully spirited and lively, always bounding ahead of the rest of us. It is a sad irony that those who work towards change rarely get to enjoy it, and those who are born into it never really appreciate it.
So the moment is all we really have, if you want to live and experience. A preoccupation with the past and the future cause a certain squalor to befall the present — a dark veil covering the now — enjoyment tempered, experience limited by future concerns or past hang ups. To release yourself to it — to unshackle yourself from history and future so you can appreciate music, friends and the rustle of trees — is a sure route to bliss. When people say chill out this is exactly what they mean. Worry always tied up with what has happened and what may happen.
And yet, we search for something more than bliss. Something more than contentment. We search for understanding, of ourselves and the world around us. We search for fulfillment, spiritually and at a deeper level than simple pleasure. Here past and future find their utility. We find understanding with reference to science, research and the great body of human literature and thought. All that has come before. In this sense the present is shallow, the past deep.
In the same way fulfillment lies in the future. In goals, aims, and aspiration. Mastering a skill, in the art of discipline. In doing something well, with quality. None of these things occur in the moment. None occur spontaneously. We have to train and practice, activities that are sometimes unpleasant, but done with the future in mind. Anchors ahead.
But we mustn’t pursue goals to feed the ego. To talk about, or show off our achievements. Western society believes the point of achieving is as much external as it is internal. That to prove to society you are good, that you are capable, is as important as proving it to yourself. The erosion of the private sphere, the culture of sharing and voyeurism at every turn, only catalyzes this. But the pleasure you derive from ego pumping is second hand. The air hissing away faster and faster after every achievement. You always striving for an ever higher mountain, each victory all the more hollow, feeling the need for another and another, until death ends the whole thing. And through all those years, the present slipped by unnoticed.
But non-ego goals actually lead us back to the present. With mastery and enthusiasm comes that head space where time and external influence don’t seem to touch. That zen like now, a blank slate of a brain, that complete involvement in an activity for its own sake. For no future goal or purpose. I find this more and more when I write or play guitar. Everything else, past and present, drops away — leaving only words on a page or notes hanging in the air.
But it never starts out this way. You begin terribly, riddled with doubt and upset. Shame that you could perform a task to such a substandard degree. This is the reason many say they are too old to learn a skill. A child’s ineptitude is understood, an adult’s is condemned. But eventually, after much toil, you are able to kick away the present and persevere, with future competency in mind. I am still only competent, in both music and writing, but the incredible momentary joy and the lasting afterglow of fulfillment I get from them is something I cannot compare.
So momentary in fact, that I am sure I will read over this in a few days and not even remember writing it. A joy from the past bounding back up to lick me on the cheek.