In an effort to prevent the kind of dinner “conversation” that sometimes occurs between people who have lived together for a while, my friend Abby gave me this beautiful box of questions. I like to think of it as CPR for the life of the mind–there’s simply no recovering from “Oh, you went out for lunch today? What did you order?” Yes. It can get that bad.
Anyway, one evening Russell and I sat down to a nice dinner at the end of a particularly long week, and I pulled a card that read: “Do you live more in the past, the present, or the future.”
Go ahead, think about it for a minute.
I’m not sure if it’s the result of my (somewhat) Catholic upbringing, or my habit of comparing myself to my near-perfect parents, or some sort of hardwired desire for perfection and closure, but I spend a lot of time reflecting on what I could/should have done differently. To say I’m utterly steeped in regret sounds so melancholy, and I don’t always feel sad when I look back, but I do regret not doing one thing or another almost every day. Even when my “mistakes” turn out to be the best decisions I’ve ever made, I still feel a lot of disappointment in myself. For example, failing a class (MBI 464—Human Viruses) in college resulted in me being a double-major in Microbiology and English because I had to stay an extra year to retake the class. I’m now working on my PhD in English! I should be thankful I blew off my first exam in order to finish Middlemarch. Yet, I still think to myself, “I wish I’d actually studied in college. Who knows where I would be right now.”
That’s some seriously flawed thinking right there. And it’s not just school, it’s everything. Relationships with friends, family, acquaintances, writing I’ve done, papers I’ve submitted, things I’ve said, purchases I’ve made (I’m currently regretting our couch), you get the point. If there was a do-over button, I’d have worn through the enamel on that baby!
Russell, on the other hand, lives in the future. He’s a forward-thinking, progressive sort of fellow. He embraces the possibility and change that the future brings. Occasionally I like to go there with him. We talk about what will happen when I finish my dissertation, when we move out of Cincinnati, when we have our own house, when this crazy summer, fall, winter, what have you is over. In these moments, I’m tempted not only by the promise of this, and this, and this, but also by the lure of the fresh start, the clean slate, the new horizon. An exercise in escapism, to be sure, but when I daydream about planting a small vegetable garden and watching my zinnias bloom, it doesn’t feel all that wrong.
I believe that this perspective is one that we (as Americans) are supposed to have, the one we’re encouraged to cultivate in ourselves. We push ourselves first through junior high and high school for the promise of college and, once there, we push ourselves through with visions of “the dream job,” which allows us to look forward to the serious relationship, the house, the kids/pets, the cars, upgrade, upgrade, upgrade…. All in the name of progress, right?
Not this past New Year’s, but the year before that, I made a resolution to “Be Here Now,” to appreciate the moment rather than looking to the past or the future. Not an easy task, I assure you. At the party that year, my proposal was met with both skepticism and seriousness. A friend loaned me a book—half-joking, half-seriously—to give me some insight. Published in 1971, Ram Dass’s tome on spirituality and, well, acid, was an interesting read, but it was a bit out there for my 2006 sensibilities. I won’t discount the message (I think the reviewer’s comments on the Amazon page speak to the profound changes that come from rethinking our perspectives on time), but I guess I was looking for something more practical, less drug-fueled. You know, something to help me focus when I’m gearing up for a self-imposed guilt trip about not reading something sooner, or when, on Monday, I’m already thinking about how great the following weekend will be.
Lately, I’ve found a bit of a mental loophole to help me out, but only with my writing and my school work. (No matter how hard I try, and believe me, I do try, I can’t “be here now” when I’m stuck behind someone who doesn’t understand the whole “right on red” thing.) Whenever I get frustrated with the dissertation process, the writing, the reading, the note-taking, the synthesis, the lack of progress, I try to envision how my future self would feel about my current attitude. Said another way, I’m trying to pre-empt some of the regret I might feel when looking back on this period of my life. Perhaps an example will clarify…
Rather than look back on this summer and think, “Why didn’t I savor those long lovely days at the library where I had peace and quiet, a huge table all to myself, and all the AC I could handle?” I consciously try to appreciate my surroundings as they are right now. Rather than reflect on Ch. 4 as messy and disorganized, beating myself up for not having it perfect the first time around, I try to be aware of the dynamic, pliable qualities of my writing, now, before it hardens into a final draft.
I know my solution is shaky, in part because I’m using the future to reconfigure my past, neither of which really counts as “now.” Furthermore, it seems problematic to depend on something that doesn’t exist (the future) to avoid a past (which also doesn’t exist yet) that only stands in for the present. And maybe you’re thinking: Jen, you’re missing the point, you should be focused on the present, the right now!!! But what if it works? Maybe it’s a temporary (and probably metaphysically flawed) fix, but it’s a fix, and I’ll take it.
Two quick things before I end this post: first, I made the same resolution this year (2007) and it’s just as difficult the second time around; and second, I never, ever have any trouble “being here now” when I’m knitting. None at all. I should probably take that as a sign…