If our human perceptions about time and space are to be trusted, we all exist in the present.
We experience everything in the now. We are where we are now. We’re doing what we’re doing now.
Because we’re deliberately focusing on it right now, we’re currently more conscious of this present existence. We’re actually present in this moment. (Or at least in the passing stream of moments since it’s difficult to isolate just one).
Sadly that means there also exists the possibility of being absent from a moment.
Such are our capacities for memory and foresight that we can travel back and forward through time at will, leaving the present, at least partially, unattended.
We might travel back to relive a former glory, recall a lesson learned, or even recycle past pain.
Or we might fly forward to anticipate some happy event or, possibly as a result of recycling past pain, to dread something entirely unwanted.
Our brain works hard to imagine future outcomes based on interpretations of past experiences. Meanwhile, the present moment waits patiently for our attention to be returned to it.
The tragedy of course is that our whole stay on this spinning terraqueous orb is made up of a series of connected present moments. To waste even one is to waste a portion of our lives; past moments can’t be re-lived and future moments can’t be pre-lived and yet plenty of living time gets dedicated to them.
It’s unrealistic, however, to aim to never waste a single moment and unfair to expect ourselves to get to a point where we are somehow wholly present 24 hours a day with no concern for the past or the future. Again, we’re human. We’re able to remember. We’re able to predict. We have these rational powers. It’s just that our use of these powers isn’t always perfect or even vaguely productive.
We may suspect it would be great to suppress these faculties in favor of an animal-like focus on the present (think of the sheep in a field concerned only with the grass in front of his nose), but to do so would be to remove our ability to learn from what’s gone and prepare for what’s ahead.
Rather than stop our time travel altogether, what if we could limit the unnecessary trips we take back and forward? What if we could be more efficient with each excursion so we have more time to spend immersing ourselves in the present?
There are three points about the past and the future I think can help with this.
The past is never uncertain
We cast our minds back to past events almost involuntarily. We repeatedly reinterpret what happened and frustrate ourselves when we can’t find some way to change how it played out. If I can just find some hidden uncertainty, we tell ourselves, I can fix it, change it, rewrite it.
But the certainty of the past is that it has passed. It’s gone and can’t be manipulated regardless of the mental gymnastics we perform. We should be relieved: this limitation absolves us of the responsibility of going back and constantly tweaking things to our satisfaction.
Our only responsibility then is simple: to extract the embedded lessons from our past experiences as a way of drawing a line under them and then do our best to let go of the stories we tell ourselves about them.
The future is never certain
We cast our minds forwards for assurances of a happy future. We worry if something undesirable is on the horizon. We crave certainty about what will happen before we can proceed with some sense of contentment in the present.
But the uncertainty of the future is its defining characteristic. It is totally insecure because the things that haven’t happened yet might not happen as we predict, or might not happen at all. Again, we should be relieved: the limitation of an uncertain future absolves us of the responsibility of constantly trying to pin it down.
Our responsibility concerning the future is simple too: to make specific plans for what’s ahead (while remaining aware that they may need to be adapted) so we can gain some satisfaction that we have dealt with the threat of tomorrow as best we can.
Vague intentions lead to unnecessary trips
We spend a lot of time loitering around in the “there and then” at the expense of the “here and now”. The idleness of the pursuit, I think, comes from the vagueness of the concern. Traveling back in time, we call up regrets and ruminate on a damaged reputation or a perceived failure. Traveling forward in time, we get anxious about doing the same again.
But because these problems aren’t specific, they never get solved — we’re not giving ourselves anything to solve.
If we can reflect on past events with the specific goal of articulating what we learned from them and if we can plan around whatever is specifically worrying us about the future, it can help draw a line under such worries.
Then we can stop always looking ahead to a future that never arrives or back to a past that won’t return. We can limit our time travel and remain grounded in the present.
If we are to confine ourselves to the present and fully experience all the subtle joys and places and people and things and challenges that make life worth living, we must embrace that very confinement.
The limitation of the past is that we’ll never find uncertainty in it and the limitation of the future is that we’ll never find certainty in it. We’re confined within these limits. And that’s just fine.
If we accept these features of the imaginary points in time that only exist in our heads we can return with a clearer view and ensure the present moment facing us finds us present, not absent.