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.