Surfing the instant

New Year, despite the fun and merrymaking, is also a time when we reflect on the past and think about the future. The most obvious indications of this are, firstly, those interminably programmes on radio and TV that go over the year’s events and, secondly, the habit of making “New Year’s Resolutions”, most of which do not survive more than a few days at most.

These reflections are perhaps pale echoes of the rituals of atonement that primitive societies often engaged in. It was felt that the burden of guilt accumulated during the year needed to be purged and the population spiritually cleansed in order to confront the new year with confidence and hope. There is nothing wrong with occasionally reviewing one’s life, constructing a sort of balance sheet and deciding where to go from here. In fact, there is a lot to recommend it as long as it is undertaken in the right spirit.

Despite the best laid plans of mice and men, life is unpredictable and we make many of our decisions on the fly. Inevitably, we often get it wrong, make mistakes and feel we have let ourselves and others down. It is good to zero the clock, as it were, from time to time, learn from past mistakes and look to the future with hope and new enthusiasm.

The past is of course important: it determines what we are. Without my memories and experiences, skills and quirks of personality, I am but a robot, a meat machine without an identity. What I have been determines how I respond to new experience and thus largely determines what I shall be.

The future is also important for it is where we situate our goals and ambitions. All but the most trivial projects take time to complete and it is this ability to plan for the future that enable us to carry out the great enterprises of civilization. Without a concept of future we would simply stumble around without achieving anything.

The most important of all, however, is the present, that knife-edge between the past and future, the only moment when we can act but which is so fleeting that we barely have time to experience it before it has become a memory. If the present is the only instant when we can do, it is the only instant when we can be. History, the past, tells us what we have been; the future, what we hope to be; it is only in the present that I am.

That is why I think it is sad that so many continually sacrifice the present for an imagined future. Whether this future is bliss in heaven or a material paradise here on earth, it comes without a guarantee. You may never see it. In any case, it will not be as you imagine it, so you cannot prepare for it. Living for the moment is the only way we can live and we should therefore embrace it, throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the moment. Joyful or tragic, it is the only stage on which we can act.

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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6 Responses to Surfing the instant

  1. Ted Marcus says:

    Happy new year to you and Tigger! I was with you in spirit (or something like that) yesterday when I tuned in (or whatever the appropriate term is for Internet radio) to Radio 4 at midnight GMT to hear Big Ben. But the best thing was– no flu-like illness like the last two years. I hope that portends something good, but there’s no reason to believe in any such thing.

    I hope the new year lives up to whatever future you’ve imagined, and that you successfully keep whatever resolutions you’ve made. For what it’s worth, my resolution is 1920×1200.

  2. athinkingman says:

    When I was a child I had a relation who retired from the Gas Board at the age of 65. He had spent most of his working life down holes fixing pipes. I can remember that he and his wife had so looked forward to his retirement and to what they were going to do together. I was at his house the day he came home from work for the last time and remember the joy of the occasion. He died the very next day.

    Such a childhood experience had a very profound impact on me. I often reflect on it when my tendency to plan becomes too obsessive. Like you say, the present is too precious to be burdened inappropriately by the past, or to be sacrificed too harshly for the future.

  3. Emalyse says:

    As you say we are the sum of our experiences and we all end up balancing living from moment to moment, having and not having a plan and feeling in control or more likely not in control of our own destiny.I guess our current materialistic society feeds many a series of constant false dangling carrots: school+Uni+qualifications+job+relationship+kids+house+promotion+more stuff =the secret of eternal happiness- but few of us factor in the random nature of life and get fixated on reaching some mythical future state. As someone once said (was it John Lennon?) Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.

  4. SilverTiger says:

    To Ted: I hope you enjoyed your Big Ben bongs and that 2008 will be a good year for you, continuing flu-free.

    To athinkingman: Your anecdote exemplifies perfectly the danger of “laying up treasure in heaven”. We cannot foresee the future – or whether there will even be one – so the wise course is to prepare for it reasonably but to enjoy the here and now as much as we can.

    To emalyse: Our culture is a goal-oriented one: life is conceived as a series of goals to achieve and anyone without goals is considered a waster. For many people, their job is their main provider of goals and when they are out of work or retire, they are at a loss.

    For some reason, the wisdom of simply enjoying life has got lost somewhere.

  5. Chris says:

    See, acknowledging my inner lack of willpower and the fact that everything is provisional (so who I am and how I feel today is not the same as I will be tomorrow or next week) I prefer to go straight for a paradoxical meta-resolution. What’s that? you may wonder. Simple. My paradoxical meta-resolution is not to make a resolution.

  6. SilverTiger says:

    I like a man who knows his own mind! 😉

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