Friday, March 29, 2013

Past, Present, and Future

Today is Friday, March 29, 2013.

Whether or not time really exists independently of human beings, we all perceive the passage of time and we order our lives in a linear fashion, with the past, present, and future as a way of classifying events in our lives.

There are a lot of people out there giving advice about how to process the past and the future.  One of those whose authorship one can trace is a poem by Kālidāsa, a renowned writer from the fifth century C.E., who wrote in Classical Sanskrit.  It amuses me to realize that modern human beings are not any smarter about the important things than those who lived long ago. 
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to a life well lived is apparently our own attitudes and emotions about the past. We spend valuable moments in our present regretting things we have done, beating ourselves up for missing the chance to do something, wondering whether we did the right thing or whether our work was good enough, worrying that we might not have impressed someone enough, or that we might have offended someone.  We wish we had said something more intelligent, more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, more tactful, or more truthful.  We wish we hadn't revealed a confidence or ruined a surprise.  We wish we had voted differently.  We feel anger about having been forced to do or say something, coerced into agreeing with someone, or tricked into being the bearer of bad news.

The future trips us up, too, before it arrives, as we spend time worrying that a negative event may happen again, fearing a negative outcome that we can't predict, waiting for the ax to fall, or fretting about whether someone will call us or send us an email.  We worry that we may lose our job, that our marriage may go sour, that our parents may disinherit us, or our kids will disown us. We are afraid that our significant other may be cheating on us, or that they will see us for what we are and break up with us.  We sweat over a presentation, sure that some higher-up will find fault with it.  We despair of ever getting ahead. We fear that we may lose all our money or face old age and death all alone.

All we can do about the past is change our attitude about what happened. We need to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and resolve to choose more wisely next time.  We need to learn from our past mistakes so that we won't repeat them.  If there is still a chance to make something right, we must seize the opportunity.  We can always apologize.  We can always admit we were wrong and ask forgiveness.  When we do these things, we not only learn from the past, but also heal it, in the sense that we no longer allow negative emotions to upset us to the point where they dictate our responses.

For the future, all we can do is prepare as well as we are able, keep ourselves open to new ideas, and be flexible enough to adjust our course heading as necessary.  One piece of advice struck me recently: Dream the future.   Not dream about the future, but dream the future – literally create it.

When we resolve to create our future, we can't expect our creation to manifest right away.  Why not?  Because we have created other things in the past, and we have to live with that creation for a while, whether it was created consciously or unconsciously.  Gradually, the future that we really want will manifest itself on the basis of our actions in the present, beginning with the moment in which we make the decision to be proactive.

 When we look at our present condition - what we have created for ourselves, we have a fuller realization of what our past actions really meant.  For example, we find ourselves short of money because we failed to save each month, we decided not to invest in the stock market, or we haven't managed our stock portfolio as well as we should have.  Going back from there, perhaps we failed to get a promotion because of something that we did or said.  Maybe we decided to play it safe in our current position, rather than try for a promotion, because it would have involved a long-distance move to an unfamiliar place.  Maybe we opted for a job that had a higher starting salary but with less opportunity for advancement.  We might have taken a job in a field that was stagnating, rather than growing toward the future.  Perhaps we failed to network with the right people.   Going back even farther, maybe we didn't study hard enough or get good enough grades to get a scholarship, so we had to pay our own way through college, or perhaps we valued an exciting social life rather than a brilliant academic career.  Whatever our present condition is, we can be sure that we created it by means of our attitudes, beliefs, actions, and words in the past.

When we are planning for the future, we must look carefully at what we are doing right now, not what we are planning to do this evening or tomorrow morning.  Is everything that we are doing now in line with our goals for the future?  If not, why not?  

Here is a great cartoon to illustrate this point. 

Past Me says, "Ugh, so much work to do... I'll do it later.

Present Me says, "Why didn't Past Me already do this?  Oh, well, I'm sure Future Me will get it done." 

Future Me says, "Damn it!  Why are you two such lazy bums?  Stop leaving me all the work!" 

I don't know about you, but I have certainly done this, many times over.  I left my housework til the weekend, because I was so busy during the week, but when the weekend came, I wanted to relax, and besides, a few friends wanted to get together on Saturday afternoon.  I waited until the last minute to get lesson plans done or write a test.  Knowing that I could not get it accomplished in the morning, I slaved away until very late at night, robbing myself of sleep with which to refresh my body for the rigors of the following day.  I forgot to get my hair cut before an important event, making it necessary to spend more time on my hair in order to get it to look OK.   Or I failed to do laundry at the appropriate time, so I had to wear a less flattering outfit to an important event. The list goes on.

In addition to detaching from our negative thoughts and emotions about our past and future, we must learn to live fully in the present.  That doesn't mean we can afford to forget about the past or future.  We just can't afford to allow our feelings about them dictate what actions we take right now.

You may think it's a waste of time for me to be ruminating about these matters, but I've realized that I'm much better at planning for the future, and although a little credit should be given to the fact that I am no longer under as much stress as I was when I was working,  I think the lion's share of the credit goes to the fact that I have taken time in recent weeks to think deeply about these things.  In that sense, these blog posts are incredibly therapeutic for me.  :-)

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