By Michael W. Gos
We were in McKinney all weekend for a wedding and all the parties that go with it. In between the festivities, we had an afternoon to kill. As a married man, I knew what the agenda was going to be—shop till you drop. Fortunately, my sweetie and I have a system that works well for both of us. She drops me off at husband day care (the nearest bar) and she goes about her business while I read, talk with other oenophiles or just watch the world go by. McKinney is the perfect place to do this since the old courthouse square is surrounded by outdoor cafes and one very nice wine bar, the Landon Winery. It was a perfect autumn day, so I had no complaints.
A glass of French wine in front of me, I was watching two police officers saunter by on horseback when a waiter brought a woman to the next table. She immediately ordered a Cotes du Rhone. The waiter laughed and pointed out that this wine was seldom ordered there. And now, here were two strangers, sitting at adjacent tables requesting the same thing. He said it was “too weird” and walked off. Of course, that started the conversation.
She told me about her daughter, now in her early 30s, and the attitude she had that the future wasn’t worth devoting any of her time or energy to. She wanted to have fun, to do things, to live now while she was young and could enjoy it. As you might expect, Mom was not pleased with that mindset.
It is a universal human trait for each generation to complain about the younger one. I know I often find myself thinking things like that about my students. (I have solid evidence of the decline; student performance on college admissions tests has crashed and burned in the last 50 years.) But then, I also keep getting slammed by memories of my dad saying exactly the same things about my generation and how we were going to hell in a handbasket. (Okay, he might have been right.)
There is a lot of research that suggests the woman’s daughter may not be so far out of the norm, especially for her generation. I think there is a lot of energy being put into indoctrinating us into that way of thinking, especially by pop culture and self-help gurus. You know the claims. The past is dead; the future doesn’t exist. All we have is today, so you’d better make the most of it.
The problem is, I can’t really say this is such a bad way of looking at life. It seems to me, in the end, we will probably regret the things we didn’t do more than those we did, so why not use our time, and money, doing exciting, fun things? After all, we might not ever have a chance to do them again; we might not even be here tomorrow.
But then there is the other side. When I was young, I thought about life in much the same way as that girl. I was well into my thirties before I started seeing this issue differently. The fact is, regardless of the catchy phrases and persuasive arguments to the contrary, the here-and-now is only one third of the whole picture. If we buy into the usual definitions of time and space, life is a long chain of events. To understand life, we have to see it all. The problem is most people never see the entire chain, only the closest link.
First, there is the obvious problem, the one I think the Cotes du Rhone mom was most worried about—the future and the obvious issue of finances. When do you start planning for buying that house, having that kid, or for retirement? I think the lack of attention to this matter is what most people see as the problem with living only in the now. In fact, most see it as being irresponsible.
But there is a more important issue regarding the future than finances. Those who don’t look to—and plan for—the future, stagnate. You can’t move forward into a future you didn’t plan and expect good results. Life will always be a series of “accidents” and you will never feel like you have any control over what happens to you.
And then there is the other direction. Fewer people consider the downside of ignoring the past, but it may have even greater consequences for our lives than not thinking about, and planning for, the future. Looking back, I can see how dumb I was about life. Like many young people, I made a lot of stupid decisions. But I learned from them; they made me what I am today. However, this learning always happened long after the fact. Only by looking back later could I understand the events and why they were important. Mistakes are a necessary part of life, but if I had not spent some time looking at the past, they would have remained just mistakes. I would never have received their gifts.
There is nothing wrong with making the most of today. But if we are going to excel in life, our world view should include learning from the past and planning for the future. For a happy future, we must look beyond the closest link and see the entire chain. It only makes sense.
And yet, I can’t deny that there is that other issue; we never know what day will be the last, so obsessing over the past or working diligently for a future could turn out to be a total waste of life. If you are thinking I can’t make up my mind which approach is better, you are exactly right.
Winston Churchill once said, “Any man under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over 30 who is not a conservative has no brains.” Perhaps we can apply Churchill’s logic to the question of how to live life; I wonder if the answer to this dilemma might be age-dependent.
When young, it is certainly prudent to study past mistakes and plan for the future. But there comes a time when our futures are fairly secure, and we have life pretty well figured out (at least we hope we do). Usually by then we become aware of our mortality and recognize that we are indeed running out of sunsets. It seems to me that maybe this is the time when living for the now is appropriate.
A friend of mine once referred to his retirement as “selfish bastard time.” Maybe he had this thing figured out and he was trying to show me the answer.