Every generation has its task and need not trouble itself all that unduly with being everything for those before and after. To each individual in the generation it is as if each day has its troubles, as though shifting for oneself were enough, without any need to enclose the entire contemporary world on one’s fatherly embrace, or to have an era or an epoch begin with one’s book, still less with the torch of one’s New Year’s resolution, or the far-reaching promises of one’s hints or reassuring references concerning a doubtful currency.Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety
Some people feel like they belong to history. They feel like their life will have meaning only if they contribute something ‘significant’ to the generations that come after. And they feel like any possible achievement hinges on their ability to do justice to the past.
The result is an impossible weight that only the very few are able to bear. Most are crushed, paralyzed with anxiety, unable to accomplish very much at all.
But we don’t need to feel the weight of all existence bearing down on us. We don’t owe the past, and the future is uncertain. We only know history to the extent that it is meaningful to us now. And we only know the future as a set of possibilities determined in some small, unpredictable (albeit significant) part by what we do in the moment.
Presence is all we have.
Presence has a leveling effect. The thing you are doing right now — having a conversation with your spouse, writing an email at work, taking the dog out —- is always the most important thing. Even the smallest things you do today will have a significant impact on the future (think about the butterfly effect in Chaos Theory), but that need not concern you now. The future is a present yet to come, and the demands of that present can be dealt with when you get there.
Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift! That is why it is called the present. ‘Master Oogway, King Fu Panda
The past and the future are not things that you can know or have any amount of control over. You only have the decisions you make in the present. The contributions you make directly are only in the here and now. The future consequences of your actions are accidents. They do not belong to you.
It’s liberating to think about living in the present, freed from the weight of the past and future. It’s good to think about your actions intensively, in terms of how virtuous they are here and now, instead of a extensively in a way that excuses your responsibility for current actions as if they can be dealt with later.
Living in the present is liberating. But it comes with its own set of obligations — like responsibility, kindness, and generosity. It’s also hard to do. It takes practice. It IS a practice.
I, for one, am terrible at presence. Flitting between concern for past, present, and future is arguably my greatest source of anxiety, in large part because I never feel like I am ever fully doing justice to anything.
But there are those moments — those flow states — when I lose myself completely to a project or to a conversation. It’s at these times that I feel true joy, am reminded of the importance of now, and am encouraged to be more practiced at being present here and now.