Today I’d planned to write a post about my 25th college reunion, which would be easier if I’d followed yesterday’s plan to attend it. Fortunately, lack of an experience is no obstacle to writing about it; in fact, it might be a help.
Although we usually like to live anywhere but here and now, the past is rarely my chosen habitat — left to its own devices, my mind abides in the future, the realm of dreams and possibility. I only wax nostalgic when I’m sick. Then I replay my life like a movie, to entertain myself and/or prepare for death. I find this reminiscing richly pleasurable, but as soon as I feel better, I’m back to the future again: planning, preparing, worrying, fantasizing.
I could defend my preference for the future by arguing that the past is a disappeared country; you can’t go back because that place doesn’t exist anymore — it ceased the moment it passed. And I think this is true. I’ve kept a journal going on 40 years. About a month ago, I reread parts of it for the first time. It struck me how my memories bear almost no resemblance to the way I experienced events at the time.
I suspect our memories are undergoing constant revision. Depending on our habits of mind, we remember things more or less rosily than they happened. We revise our interpretations of our history in light of who we are now, and the ever-unfolding consequences of events.
So it’s clear that the past isn’t a fixed place; it’s always shifting. But the future is hardly more real — it’s purely hypothetical. If we’re not living in the present, our choice is between things that didn’t happen the way we think, and things that haven’t happened at all. Slim pickings.
T.S. Eliot wrote, “We are only redeemed from time by time.” This is a way of saying that eternity lies in every moment, which the founder of Soto Zen, Eihei Dogen, would agree with wholeheartedly. Meaning all moments are embraced by this one: all past and all future. This feels true, since this moment is plainly the culmination of every preceding moment, and the source of every moment to come.
But what does this mean for our lives, for how we live? Maybe it means trying to live in the world, rather than an idea of it. Instead of driving down to Boston yesterday, I went to Home Depot in the next town, bought several herbs to start the deck garden I’ve dreamed of for years, made basil and garlic pesto, and walked on the beach near my house. A prosaic day.
Gazing at the tiny islands resting in the bay, feeling the powerful southerly wind sweep my mind of everything inconsequential — ideas of past and future — I thought, I’m in a place I love, trying to figure out how to do work that matters, surrounded by people I care about — who would choose to be anywhere else?
I enjoyed this piece. I have only attended one school reunion, and I didn’t like it much. But I never thought that the decision not to attend another is a choice for living in the present. I like that!
Yes, it’s a strange thing, that everything we do is a choice on many levels — a choice in support of certain values and against others. I think we rarely consider these deeper ramifications when we make a decision, and maybe that’s as it should be — deciding is often challenging enough as it is! But that’s why I so much liked the criterion proposed by the business-school professor I mentioned in our workshop: that we ask ourselves, “Who am I becoming [making myself into] if I do this?”
Glad you enjoyed the post — and thanks for commenting!