For the most part, I’m a forward-looking person. Since childhood, I’ve looked ahead. There was always something. It kept me going. But mostly, it helped me escape the boredom of the moment.
I grew up in an increasingly busy culture. There was always another sporting event with rooting interest. Another new movie that piqued my curiosity. Another get-together with family and/or friends. Another TV episode to keep current on.
With so many diversions, something always hit my sweet spot. A good book to read. Changing seasons. Another holiday to celebrate. With enough interests, you have a built-in buffer against boredom. And boredom was what I feared most. So, being naturally curious and intellectually promiscuous, I cultivated interests.
Being forward-looking made me a progressive, politically. Conservatives, on the other hand, are primarily backward-looking. Others, meanwhile, seem quite comfortable living in the present and don’t spend much time looking ahead or behind. But those who only look back, only look forward, or only focus on the here-and-now limit themselves.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because the pandemic has interrupted my pattern. There isn’t much to look forward to, other than getting beyond this time of social-distancing, sheltering-in-place, and self-quarantine. Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to that time, but I have no idea what to expect. I don’t think anyone else does either.
I’m curious to see how the November election turns out, but I’m only looking forward to it if Himself is thrown out on his ample ass. I’m curious to see the new world that emerges post-pandemic, but I’m only looking forward to it if it’s a better world, not if it’s the same and certainly not if it’s worse.
I’m no longer looking forward to the Memorial Day Parade in River Forest, Day in Our Village and the July 4th Parade in Oak Park, or outdoor Shakespeare in Austin Gardens. Those annual highlights have been canceled. For the time being, Farmers Market will have to suffice.
I am looking forward to hugging my grandsons again and getting together with friends without worrying about infecting one another. But in the near future, there aren’t many events on the social calendar to look forward to.
Living in the present has much to commend it. The Earth is getting a welcome break from our relentless assault on it. The sunshine seems brighter. It may just be my imagination, but sunny days seem sunnier now, and sunshine has always made me more eager for the future. These days, however, I hit the wall of diminished expectations, which throws me back into the present. I like having my default settings shaken up, but I’m left with no alternative except to savor the moment.
Or dive back into the past. Which I’ve been doing during my homebound hours. I call it my Back Pocket Project. For the past 20 years, I’ve kept a small, spiral-bound notebook in my back pocket. No, not the same one. In my many notebooks (approximately 80), I scribbled thoughts and observations, pithy quotes I came across, and snatches of conversations I overheard in passing. I even found poems, or at least the foundation of poems, which I’m now expanding on. Over two decades, I compiled a record of my mental meanderings and discovered, to my surprise, a few worth saving. More than a few. Thus far it adds up to almost 100 typed pages.
Looking back can be useful to the here-and-now — and the future.
I wondered at one point, for instance, why we so often phrase our wisdom in the negative. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Henry David Thoreau famously insisted. Why not, “The examined life is the best of all possible lives”? As it happens, many in our present predicament are, I’ll wager, living a more examined life than any of us thought possible just three months ago.
Or this: From childhood on, we’re told not to be afraid. It’s the one thing we all pretend not to be, and probably the one thing we all are.
Or quotes: “We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature. A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” wrote Edmund Burke, patron saint of conservatives — of thoughtful conservatives anyway. We’re all obeying the law of change these days.
“My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance and in inverse proportion to my expectations,” said Michael J. Fox, who has fought a courageous battle with Parkinson’s disease, in an interview with AARP magazine.
Expectations are all about hope, but hope harbors illusions. Buddhism promotes a different notion — a kind of “enlightened hopelessness.” Liberation, not despair. Doing away with our illusions forces us to acknowledge, and even embrace, the impermanence of existence, which leaves us better off in the long run.
Many of us are finding the Great Interruption of 2020 a painful experience. But according to one of my notebooks, Vinny Ferraro, a mindfulness guru with a fascinating past (including prison), says there are two kinds of suffering: one leads to more suffering, the other leads to less suffering. Which suffering are we suffering?
The poet David Whyte observed that the Irish have a saying, “The thing about the past is, it’s not the past.” For better, and often for worse, the past remains alive in the present. In fact, we live at the intersection of past, present and future. It’s a complicated crossroads. The seeds of our future lie in the present, which is informed by the past. We juggle all three — ideally learning from the past and setting a course for the future, but too seldom giving ourselves the time and space in the present to take stock of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
Now we have that time.
Another term for all of this is “being, leading to becoming.”
And what we’re becoming is something to look forward to.