Many of us are reflecting on the year just passed and making plans for the months ahead. The pundits among us have pronounced on the successes and failures behind us and prognosticated on future possibilities. Some of us brought in January 1 with bold resolutions for change—we’ll lose weight, eat more leafy greens, stress less, pay off debt, focus on family….
We spend so much time at this time of year considering past times and future times—and so little time focusing on what we’re doing right now, at this very moment.
Are we with friends and loved ones? Are we enjoying their company, or are we fussing about what food we’ll serve them, worrying whether there is gluten in the stollen they brought or stressing if Uncle George will pick another fight?
If we’re not with friends, are we doing something—right now—that adds even a teeny a bit of richness to our lives or those of the people around us? Drinking a really good cup of coffee? (I hope so.) Reading a thought-provoking newspaper column? (Surely not.) The mystics and philosophers admonish us that only the present is real: Yesterday is a dream, tomorrow a vision, so make use of today.
Our future-oriented outlook is about control. We constantly look ahead to finish tasks, meet deadlines, plan projects, order pizza for supper, prepare for tomorrow’s weather, and so on. Of course, without planning, activities like laundry and grocery shopping would never get done. Food would not be prepared. We’d have no shelter from the elements. Working would be impossible. The present can quickly become tense, as experienced by many homeless people.
When we poke about the past, we remember conversations and experiences. The pizza from Bob’s Old-Timey Pizza, Doughnut and Bait Shoppe was really good the last couple of times we ordered it—therefore, it will probably be really good again. We’ll order it tonight. The last time it rained heavily for three days, the gutters overflowed. It has rained heavily for two days, therefore I must remember to check the gutters when I get home. The family had so much fun in Disneyland last year, we should go again.
We draw on memory to determine how to react to our present and how to predict and plan our future. In fact, the likelihood we will need to recall information within a memory increases how well the brain inscribes and catalogues it within the neural filing system. If our minds decide we will have urgent need of the information contained within, the brain flags the memory-imprinted cells and increases their network of cross-references.
At another intersection between the past and our need to control our future, an entire field of study exists that uses detailed information about past and present conditions to model likely future probabilities. By feeding wide-ranging datasets about what has happened through computer algorithms, meteorologists are able predict weather, scientists can model long-term climate effects on forests and sea levels, financial analysts can pronounce on markets, and insurance companies can determine which populations are most likely to cost them money.
Such forecasts permit us to make more informed decisions. Once we know what might happen, we can link cause to effect, and take steps to influence change to our advantage. Such steps might, for example, include making new year’s resolutions.
But we miss a lot when we gloss “now” over. With so great an investment of time and attention directed elsewhen, we spend little time being all present and accounted for.
Very young children live in such a state. Other people, whose capacities for planning or remembering are limited by injury or illness, also may experience this. Some people choose it. Others have it thrust upon them. However, many of them require a measure of assistance from others to survive and to help to provide for the future.
But it’s worth it, perhaps, to resolve that in coming months, we’ll each spend a bit more time enjoying our presence within the present.
Happy now and 2016.
A version of this editorial appeared in the January 3 edition of the Victoria Times Colonist.