I was watching a great short film by Sky Bergman, titled “Lives Well Lived”. The movie interviews older adults whose collective past was anchored in World War II. Listening to each of the elders sharing their early life got me thinking about the concept of time. Their lived experience in the past was “history” to me. But I identified with their experiences because I grew up with someone who was a contemporary of theirs and who had shared his past with me.
My grandfather was born in the late 19th century. He served in World War I. He knew life when homes were lit by gas, not electricity; when there were no phones, only letters and telegrams; when the pace of life was measured by seasons, not seconds. His past consisted of a dramatic transformation of society from agrarian to technologic. And, while he and I shared a past, we experienced it from very different perspectives.
Because my grandfather shared his stories of what life was like for him growing up in a small Wisconsin town in the 1890s, I feel as if I have a connection to that time and place that is more real than any movie or history book. To state the obvious, the older I get, the more past I accumulate. Looking back covers more time, more events, and more history.
How far back does your past go?
Unlike past events, the future is an enigma. There is an inevitability to it, and yet it remains unknown. For many people I know, it is something fraught with scary things, or at least things that are unwanted.
Because of its unknownable-ness, all kinds of strategies and theories have evolved in an attempt to lower anxiety and give a leg up to secure an outcome. Whether it is astrology or astronomy, humans have put their minds to coming up with predictive means to know and understand what is going to happen next.
Fortunately, the methodologies used for predicting what will happen in the next few minutes, days, weeks, months, years, decades, and millennia have improved over time. In many arenas we have gotten really good at figuring out the future.
Your Experience of Your “Future” Depends on How Old You Are
I remember being very impatient as a youngster to get to certain milestones. For example, when I was in grade school, just making it to high school seemed to take forever. When I was in high school, getting to16 to be able to get my driver’s license was an interminable wait. When I was in college, reaching 21 to vote was frustrating, especially given the challenging politics of the day.
Photo Series by Tom Hussey: Reflects of the Past
I clearly remember in my early career days, reading about an event that would occur in 2050 and realizing, with some regret, that I would be dead and miss out on it. Now, some 40 years later, my future is just as limited before, but I am not quite so impatient for it to arrive, and I have greater difficulty denying the end is in sight.
The Present is All We Ever Have
Which brings me to the simple but unbelievably challenging truth that all we have is now. As a Flower Child, the words of Ram Dass, “Be here now!” made an impression. In each and every “now” that followed, I have struggled to experience being present. Every now and then, I catch a glimpse of it, and am grateful.
For me, the challenge of “now” is that I am a sum of all my “nows”. My “now” is very slippery depending on how confident I feel, whether I had sufficient sleep or am hungry, feel pulled away by the needs of friends or distracted by the antics of my cats.
The Older I Get the More Time I Spend in my Past
I find myself lingering in my memory banks a lot. It is comforting territory, particularly since the world is currently so chaotic. Living alone, as I do, presents its own set of challenges, since there is little to anchor me to “now”.
My present lacks the excitement it once had, and for the most part, consists solely of repetitive patterns. This has benefits and drawbacks. I don’t have the capacity for managing a lot of chaos, something that is especially evident in this post-COVID world, so the routine offers a calming predictability. But it can also be boring.
Mindfulness, Curiosity, and Surprise
I am a mindfulness practitioner. It is a skill and attitude that I find very useful at this point in the trajectory of my life as it brings me into this moment from wherever I am. I was heartened that so many of the elders interviewed in the movie also expressed a similar view.
Add to this the intention to remain curious and allow yourself to be surprised, and you will find a winning formula for navigating our increasingly uncertain world. Again, each of the elders offered lived evidence that a life can have much pain, suffering, and loss. What gives it meaning is attitude.
I don’t mean positivity here, although at times that is useful. For me, attitude is the ultimate expression of choice. It is when, how and where I exercise my will. Sometimes, I will choose to embrace what is uncomfortable or unwanted. Other times I will choose to embrace what is joyful and affirming.
Inevitably, when I am mindful and hold a curious attitude, I am pleasantly surprised.
Accumulation, Arrangement, Desire
In playing with words and ideas, it occurred to me that another way of defining my “past” is accumulation. Accumulation of experiences, habits, beliefs, friends and memories.
All these contribute to how I arrange my current world, my “present”, whether it be my preferences for food or music or the choices I make to visit friends or stay home by myself.
Finally, desire has everything to do with what I choose to let into my world or keep at bay; my “future”. What do I want more of or less of? What do I need to bring into my life that will sustain me?
Other Markers of Time
My grandfather’s home town newspaper used to run a column, “One Hundred Years Ago”. The column would pick out stories and events that were news of the day, and now, in retrospect either seemed quaint, funny, or prescient. I loved reading that column. It gave me a sense of being part of something larger than just my little day-to-day world.
Just in case you were curious, in May of 1923, Prohibition was repealed. For many, it signaled we would be going to hell. Readers enjoyed Time Magazine, a new way of presenting news that had been launched only two months prior. The Brothers Warner were one month into their cutting edge technology of bringing moving pictures with sound to locations around the country.
American writers and expatriates, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, were enjoying the high life in Paris while their publishers were trying to market their new forms of short story and novel writing. The stock market was still booming, but had less than five months before the country and then the world would careen into depression.
What Lessons Are Available?
This is a topic that I continue to ponder. For the moment, here are my take-aways:
- The future is survivable, depending on what you have learned from your past and how you experience your present.
- The past can hold you hostage, especially if you ignore your present and are afraid of the future.
- Your present becomes more valued the more past you have.
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