Sunday, August 30, 2009

Past, Present, and Future

 People can be crippled by past.  For some folks, suffering from PTSD, this can be difficult to overcome.   But for most of us, our past traumas are not nearly so dramatic.  Yet many fail to move on and live productive lives.

"you gotta let go of the past, Bubs" --from The Wire

We are often told that we should live for today - live for the moment, instead of obsessing about the past or planning for the future. And living for today, for the most part, is good advice. If you can take advantage of what is going on in the here and now, you can live life more fully, and moreover, live your life more effectively.

However, oftentimes, we get so caught up in the past - or the future - that we fail to experience the present. What do I mean by this? Well, let me explain.

Living in the Past

A friend of mine has trouble sleeping. He tells me that every night he wakes up with things running through his brain- incidents or things that happened days, moths, years, or even decades ago.

"Stupid Brain!" he says, "Cut it out! I'm trying to sleep!"

His experience is not atypical, and I suspect that some wiring in our brain causes us to do this - perhaps to program our Neural Network to learn from such experiences. It takes an active effort to not obsess about past actions and worry about what was said or done years ago. And as one gets older, the number of experiences accumulate, so you have more and more to obsess about. My friend is 74, so he has a lot of experiences to ricochet around in his brain. Forgetfulness is a blessing, not a curse.

For some folks, however, obsessing about the past can be a crippling disability, not merely something that occasionally causes you to lose sleep. Many folks simply can't move beyond their childhood (See, The Parent Trap) or High School, College, a previous relationship, or whatever. They tend to view their lives through the lens of the past, instead of enjoying what is happening today. And if bad things happened in the past, well, it is nearly impossible to enjoy the today.

In the quote above, from The Wire (Which, by the way, is another one of those mildly amusing soap operas from HBO, whose mystique is quickly pierced if the episodes are watched one after another on DVD as opposed to weekly installments) one of the main characters "Bubbles" has a lot of past to deal with - post traumatic stress disorder from the Gulf War, as well as inadvertently killing his best friend through a drug overdose.

Those are hard things to bounce back from, and one can understand why someone with such baggage has trouble "moving on" with their lives.

But for most folks "stuck in the past", their traumas were far less dramatic - dealing with neglectful parents, or bullies in school. You can move on from a typical suburban middle-class childhood. It wasn't that traumatic.

And yet many have trouble doing just that. As I noted in a previous article, my late Sister spent much of her short life trying to "make sense" of her relationship with her parents, and in particular, our Mother. She never achieved that closure, I think, which is a shame. She spent countless hours reading books on the subject, boring to death anyone within earshot about it, and talking to counselors about it.

There was not much to "make sense" of. Mom was a drunk, mentally ill, and struggling to deal with her own sexual identity. However, we lived a typical suburban upper-middle-class lifestyle, and were well-fed and well-educated. By global standards, we were incredibly lucky. Get over it. Move on.

But my Sister's example is not atypical, and this sort of thing seems to afflict women more than men. Brooding over things long done and said is of little use. Moreover, being morose today over something that happened 20 years ago does little other than to destroy the today. If you feel you have been victimized in the past, letting it ruin your life now only lets the victimizer win again.

This is not to say that there is nothing to be gained from introspection or reminiscence. We learn from our mistakes, and the more mistakes we make, the more we learn. It is very important to review things we did in the past and learn from them, lest we make the same mistakes over and over again.

But obsessing about things that happened and trying to "understand" them or worry about them or feel bad about them is an utter waste of time. Trying to re-live the past in a fantasy world, is even less constructive.

In Normal Mailer's debut novel The Naked and the Dead, he describes this type of re-living fantasy as the most common, and concludes that it is a dead end.   It was startling to read this comment, as I thought I was the only one who spent (wasted) countless hours thinking, "If only I had...."

And it is a pointless exercise. If only I had taken a different job, or went to a different school, or whatever. "If only I knew then what I know now!" is a common refrain.   If only I had bought Microsoft in 1980!   Hey, while we're at it, might as well have bought all those winning lottery tickets too!

Regardless of how you view the space-time manifold, the hard truth is, you can't relive the past and re-thinking the past doesn't change it.  Spending time re-living your past life and wondering what you could have done only serves to further squander your present - and your future.

Learn from the past - and then move on.   Let it go.  You can't un-bark the dog.   It is not an adiabatic reversible process.  Time moves as a vector, in one direction, at least for us mortals.

Note also that living in the past can be just as crippling, if not more so, for people who have fond memories of their past.  In the Bruce Springsteen song, "Glory Days" he describes how people from his High School have struggled to move beyond their glory teenage years.   Middle-aged friends, after they have a few beers in them, do nothing but reminisce about how great high school was, when they were kings of the hallways and the athletic fields.

One can understand why they do this. Their "glory days" of high school were so much better than their mundane middle-class lifestyle of middle age. In High School, they were Gods.   As adults, they are just another schmuck, and no one cares whether they broke the School's all time passing record in 1975. Moving on for such folks is doubly difficult, as they have little to move on to. There is no present or future than can surpass their past.

This should be good news, however, for the bulk of us, for whom high school was a total drag.  At least we didn't peak too early and have much to look forward to.  The only way you can short-circuit your own happiness is to obsess about your own past, and not enjoy the present and future you have.

Living in the Present

"I never look back, darling.  It detracts from the Now."  - Edna Mode.

Being a kid was great. I remember being about 6-8 years old as some of the best times of my life.   It was that age when self-consciousness was just occurring, and there was little to do except enjoy life and not worry about the past or future.

As a kid, you have little or no past memories to worry about.   You cannot stay awake at night and worry about things from 20 years ago, because frankly, you can't remember very clearly more than a year back.   And kids seem to take disappointment in stride, rapidly forgetting any minor incidents or episodes with ease.

If you watch kids play, you can see this plainly.   "Let's be friends!" one says. "OK," says the other - it is simple as that. Let's enjoy the moment for what it is without worrying about the future or the past.

And the future - that seems pretty far off and irrelevant. I remember as a child, learning about death for the first time. I was bitterly disappointed.  You mean this doesn't just go on forever? Well, no.

But then my parents explained to me that, with any luck, I would live to be 60, 70, or 80 years old, which was further that I could count at the time. So why worry about it? 70 years might as well be an eternity at that age. A child has few worries about the past - or the future.

Unfortunately, as we get older, we lose this child-like capability to live for the moment. To some extent, this is because we do have to plan for the future and learn from the past, and these experiences try to crowd out the Now. It takes mental effort to filter out these annoyances and reduce them to their respective places, if you want to enjoy the present for what it is.

Fear and Worry seem to dominate the minds of many adults. As youth, we have no cares, no possessions, no retirement plan. And we have no worries. As adults, we want to secure our position - make sure we keep what we have, and plan for the future. As a result, many of us worry too much - or are afraid. And such emotions can be both physically and emotionally draining. You can literally worry yourself to death.

Living in the Future

"When a Man Makes Plans, God Laughs" - Old Yiddish Proverb

Planning for the future is important to your life. I am not suggesting that you go through life, hoping everything works out, without making any plans whatsoever. We all have to plan, to some extant, whether it is how to pay the mortgage next month, or what to have for dinner tomorrow.

And it is also important to make long-range plans - for retirement, for your long-term care and support, and for the care and education of your children.

But for many folks, these plans can end up dominating their lives, and end up making their lives less enjoyable.

Plans are just that - ideas for the future, not a blueprint or road map. Plans change over time - and should - to accommodate new circumstances.

Perhaps this is an effect of Western Culture that we make these ironclad plans and expect ourselves to stick to them. Contract law, as evolved in Europe and particularly in England, allowed little or no room for change over time. If you signed a contract and the terms later turned out to be so unfavorable that you went broke, well, that was too bad. Off to the poorhouse or debtor's prison with you, where you would likely die. Perhaps you might have some recourse in Chancery (Equity) courts, but that was about it.

Today, Western law follows the same course. You sign a contract, and that's it. No wiggle room later on, unless you can threaten the other party somehow.

When dealing with other cultures, it is startling to notice the difference in attitudes toward contracts. The different cultural values often result in horrible misunderstandings. In many Middle Eastern and Eastern cultures, a contract is just a plan, not a guarantee. If conditions change such that one party cannot perform without going insolvent, then of course the contract is up for renegotiation. Why would someone be expected to perform on a contract to the point of extinction? It makes no sense.

In a similar manner, it makes no sense to obsess about plans for the future or to get upset when they go horribly wrong. Nine times out of Ten, you can expect plans to go horribly wrong. When the stock market recently tanked, many folks acted surprised, as their retirement plans were based on the market continuing to climb at a given rate. But if you look at the record historically, one should expect that there will be periodic "adjustments" not in your favor.

And since you cannot control such adjustments or the timing of such adjustments, as you get older you should put your money into safer and safer investment - and diversify. But even then, there is no guarantee that your plan will come to fruition.

Following the plan is often a recipe for disaster. Conditions change and plans should change accordingly. If you look at the history of major decisive battles, it is often the General who changes his plans in mid-stream who ends up winning. As conditions change, he takes advantages of these changes or opportunities and uses them to strategic advantage. The General who "follows the plan" - drawn up days or weeks ahead of battle - often ends up sending his troops into a mass slaughter.

My Father used to say that in order to succeed in life you can't be a "Quitter" but instead should "stick it out" and "finish what you started". My Father was an idiot and never even followed his own advice (on average, he changed jobs every 5 years, quitting several times and never "finishing what he started"). Unfortunately, many parents give such bad and crippling advice.

If you are a college student and don't like what you are studying or your school, then by all means, change your major, take a leave of absence, withdraw from school, or whatever. Finishing a degree you have no use for (and incurring tens of thousands of dollars in student debt) makes no sense. And it makes less sense to get depressed, drop out, and end up with low grades on your average.

It makes no sense to stay at a dead-end job and end up getting laid off. If you are depressed about your life and job, it is your brain telling you to change things. Change your plans for the future and ditch the old ones. Move on. Live in the present.

WORRYING about the future is probably even more crippling than over-planning or trying to follow old plans. We all make plans for the future, but sometimes these plans can get out of hand. We also tend to obsess and worry about things that haven't happened yet, or might not happen.

Just as the brain sometimes tortures us late at night about things that happened in the past, sometimes an overactive brain will torment us with "What ifs" about the future. Suppose we have company over next month and I say the wrong thing? Or Suppose this or that happens to our finances and then what do we do? The list goes on and on.

And when you step back and think about it, it is ridiculous. Your brain is worrying about what could happen, possibly, maybe, in the future, if such-and-such happened than some other string of improbable events was triggered. "Stupid Brain!"

To some extent, this sort of behavior in our brain, like dreaming, serves a function. By working out combination's and permutations of possible future events, we can take precautions and prevent such events from happening. But when worrying or fear takes over the mind, it can cripple a person and prevent them from enjoying the hear and now - which as we know is the only place we can live. "Tomorrow never comes" as they say, and it is true.

Living in the future manifests itself in a number of other behaviors as well. I remember in the 1990's these 8-mm camcorders became very popular. I bought one, and like anyone from that era, started making annoying videos that no one ever watched. While viewing the world through the camcorder lens, one realized that one was not experiencing the here and now, but rather framing events for a memory to be enjoyed later. It was not until days, weeks, or months later when I watched these videos, that I actually "experienced" the event. Viewing the Grand Canyon through a camcorder lens is not experiencing it.

The camcorder broke, eventually, and I never replaced it. I started taking digital pictures for a while, but then largely gave up on that. Taking the occasional picture is fun, but when any experience becomes a string of successive (and largely pointless) pictures, the cameraman is no longer living in the present, but thinking of the future download and posting of the photos.

Nowadays, when I go somewhere, I usually forget to bring the camera, and it is no big deal. I enjoy the experience for what it is, at the time, and forget about trying to record it for some unknown posterity.

While driving into town the other day, I realized that aggressive driving is another example of living in the future. In Central New York, a depressed area, people tend to drive aggressively and tailgate excessively - often in the worst sort of run-down cars. Even if you are doing the speed limit, someone will ride your bumper as if to say "Come on, enough already, I want to GET THERE!"

And that is just the point. In their minds, they are already at their destination. The trivial act of traveling from point A to point B is just some mundane repetitive task that should be disposed of as quickly as possible. They are already thinking about what they will be doing once they reach their destination and are not living in the now.

And, as you might expect, they get in a lot of car accidents, not just from tailgating or speeding, either. They are often not thinking about their immediate surroundings, but rather of where they are going. So they don't see the deer by the side of the road, or the child crossing the intersection, or the stop sign dead ahead.

Commuting is hardly an enjoyable experience, and most people anesthetize themselves with talk radio, cell phones, or their iPod to remove themselves from the immediate experience. Rather than change the experience (change jobs, move closer to work) they chose to merely blank out an unpleasant aspect of their lives.

And unfortunately, this blanking effect allows them to commute for longer and longer distances. In the D.C. area, I knew folks who would drive an hour or two in each direction, each day, so they could live "in the country" in a vinyl-clad mini-mansion next door to an identical vinyl-clad mini-mansion. They would argue that it was "worthwhile" making such an arduous commute so that on the weekend they could enjoy living in the country.

Such an argument was future-living at its worst. They endured a horrible commute in the "now" so that they could enjoy a "weekend in the country" in the future. Unfortunately, these lovely weekends often amounted to little more than mowing the lawn and visiting big-box stores. And once trapped in these scenarios, few tried to change their plight, as to give up on the "dream house" would be "quitting".

When the market for such homes collapsed, a funny thing happened. Many folks, after getting over the initial shock, actually felt liberated. Unable to change their present circumstances, the shattering of their future dreams forced their hands. They realized that the future they were living for was forcing them to live in an unpleasant present.

Procrastination is probably another example of living in the future and also an example of how damaging living in the future can be. It is all too easy to put things off until tomorrow. We have work to do, but feel listless and lethargic. "I'll do it tomorrow," we say, "and enjoy this glass of beer today!"

But the end result is that procrastination merely makes one feel worse about the future, increasing worry and stress. As a student, I was a horrible procrastinator, and spent more energy worrying about reports and schoolwork due than actually doing the work. Projects that seemed too large would be put off for some later time, when (in my fantasy) I would quickly complete them.

A better approach is to live in the present. If a project seems to daunting, then break it up into manageable chunks - what can be done TODAY, rather than the entire project. If you view a project as a single item, then you will inevitably be disappointed when it is impossible to finish NOW.

Instead, look at a project as a series of tasks, and think about what, realistically can be performed today. That way, "success" in a task is easier to achieve, as you can succeed in a sub-task on any given day.

For example, I am in the process of finishing off an unfinished basement room -a task I have been putting off for four years. The overall project seemed easy at first, "throw up some sheet rock and paint it" as they say. But the actual task comprises a dozen or more sub-tasks, each of which can easily take a day or more.

What got the project going was to try to do a little each day, rather than a whole lot at once. Cleaning out the space took a whole day in and of itself. Just moving tools in place and setting up a workspace another. Rewiring electrical outlets turned out to be a multi-day job. And insulating the bar 2x4's another.

"Throwing up the sheet rock" in retrospect, is the easiest part of the job. The harder parts are getting the walls ready to throw it onto.

But what really became paralyzing was planning the space. Should we put a fireplace in there? And if so, what kind, gas or wood? What about cabinets? Endless discussion ensued, and we found ourselves thinking of possibilities based on possibilities and what-ifs and "wouldn't it be nice if.." Not a lot of work got done, but we were still exhausted.

Finally, we realized that the best thing to do was to figure out what was affordable this year, and what could be done on this day, and to leave our options open for the future. Suddenly, work actually got done on this project.

Living in the present allows you to be more productive. Worrying about the future or over-planning for events that may not happen is rarely productive.

So, How Can We Live in the Present?

This is not as easy as it seems, and in fact is the toughest thing one can do.

And by "living in the present" I do not mean living for the mere moment, as a homeless person or drug addict does, caring only about the next high. Rather, what I mean is often the opposite.

The over-used slogan "Seize the Day" (Carpe Diem) now appearing on a t-shirt or bumper sticker near you, perhaps best expresses the idea. (Ironically, many of the folks I see bearing this slogan are often living deeply in the past).

Living in the present means taking action in the present and enjoying things in the here and now. And ENJOYING the here and now is part of it. While driving to the store might not seem like an enjoyable task, or doing some piece of work might not seem like fun, it is possible to extract enjoyment from such things. And cumulatively, such enjoyment adds up to a lot of pleasure in life. Finishing things and getting work done is often more pleasurable that brief moments of intoxication or thrills.

This does take a lot of effort, however. And for most Americans, it goes against an entire way of life - often touted on television or in popular culture.

"Everybody's working for the weekend," a popular (and horribly bad) rock song proclaims. This phrase neatly sums up the phenomenon of Future living. The here and now is some onerous awful and boring task that must be accomplished only for the sake of a brief weekend of thrills and intoxication. Most of us live like this. It is a hard cycle to break.

My Father used to promote this theory as well. "In life, you have to do things you don't necessarily want to do" he said, "I have to get up and go to work every morning, and most of the time I don't want to go!" He had an enviable job as a manager of a small factory. The lack of joy in his work probably reflected on his work. The factory eventually closed and was bulldozed to the ground. He found no joy in his work.

Why did he did this? He felt he had to work for a future self. He was sacrificing the here-and-now for some future Valhalla. He worked at a job he hated so he could have a house than impressed his friends and satisfied the social needs of his wife. He scrimped and saved to put his kids through college so they would become successful props in his social standing.

Not surprisingly, this daily grind eventually got to him. Having all the joy sucked out of the here and now left him wondering what the point was. When a younger woman propositioned him to enjoy the here-and-now, he found it hard to resist.

If you find yourself living in a present not of your own liking, then change it. Put pride in the trash can and re-think your life and start over. I've seen people work their fingers to the bone in jobs they hate, only so they can have status items to impress others.

This is not to say you should just chuck all your plans, cash in your 401(k) and buy a mountain of crack.   If you think this is what I have been saying, you are not listening very carefully.   Planning for the future and setting aside money for the future is a task you accomplish in the here and now.   And having money in the bank and an assured future is one thing that makes the Now more enjoyable.   You can enjoy the Now if your future is assured.

In my own life, I saw this happening, and decided to change things. Working hard to have "things" is a false logic. It is important to save for and plan for the future. However, if you are unhappy in the present, chances are, you may never make it to that longed-for future happiness.

I found myself falling into the typical trap of owning "things" - or letting things own me. It is a natural reaction, in this culture, to want things, as having things is touted on television as the greatest goal one can have. But once you own things, the allure of them fades quickly.

As I get older, I find myself wanting to do things rather than own things. And unfortunately owning things tends to get in the way of doing things, or living in the now.

Enjoying the moment is just as important as planning for the future. And pining for the past has no profit in it whatsoever.