Why does the world always seem bigger when we're younger, the days longer, the fun more memorable, the days problems less worrisome? Perhaps it's because we don't yet know any better, or because we haven't been told where the edges are, or maybe it's because we just love each moment more fully, not so conscious or afraid of what may come but intensely soaked in the present, living now so wholly that everything else, including ourselves, pales in comparison to what lie ahead.
A few days ago a friend emailed me with some bad news: his friend and his friend's daughter recently died in a plane crash in Kenya along with the pilot. The plane went missing in bad weather and the wreckage and remains were found shortly thereafter.
We never know when it will be our time, which is, ironically, much the same as for our birth.
My daughter is due any day now (officially on the 19th, but it could be any day) and it feels like a waiting game. Will today be the day? I just don't know.
In the same way I could wonder, will tomorrow be the day I die? I don't know that either. We never really know until it happens.
I heard something once that really stuck with me: Every year we pass over the anniversary of our death.
We may not know which day--will it be a Friday? or a Wednesday? or the 20th of July?--but we do know that it will happen, and every year that day silently passes through our lives unannounced.
While walking outside yesterday and thinking about this I realized that the opposite is also true: Every year we pass over the anniversary of our birth. Right now, I don't know when that date will be for my daughter, just as I don't know when the opposite date will be true and settled for me.
In some ways this sounds depressing, but to me it feels freeing. If I don't know, and I have no way of knowing with certainty, then how can I let it worry me? And if there's nothing to worry me, then only now remains to be enjoyed.
We know that life comes and goes. This is fact. What we don't know is how much we'll get to enjoy it.
It doesn't matter how much you love what has passed. It doesn't matter how perfect this moment is or how much you want to hold on to it. It's gone. Everything that has been, is gone. Everything that will be, is gone. All that remains, for an impossibly brief and ever-fleeting moment, is now, empty, pure, full of potential, a pile of dry kindling awaiting a spark of inspiration.
There is no permanence in anything but change, but change, like fire, must be fed with the breath of life.
So accept each and every moment as a golden opportunity, a moment that you've been given, a chance to do anything you want, or, if you so choose, a chance to sit idly by, daydreaming about what has been or what could be, losing yourself, and that moment, in exchange for absolutely nothing, a dull lifeless stare at a dull, cold, and lifeless pile of kindling, sacrificing precious moment after precious moment, never to see them again, until one day you arrive at the end and look back, upon this frozen and unchangeable wasteland of unused potential, missed, neglected, lost.
So open your heart and open your mind. Breathe life into this moment. The future awaits your hand in its creation, right here, right now.
Look not backward with nostalgic sadness into the frozen sea of changelessness, but forward with blissful gratitude into the warm arms of unwritten possibility.
For three days and two nights, forty-four strangers become a tribe, a group of people living communally under one roof, all headed in the same direction, with every intention of arriving at the same destination.
During our journey we all sleep in the same room. We use the same bathrooms and kitchens. We fall asleep side-by-side, snore, and otherwise leave ourselves entirely vulnerable to absolute strangers.
We awake in the morning with messy hair and groggy eyes, collect our clothes and toiletries, and wobble down the hall to the bathroom where we shower and brush our teeth.
All of us different colors, genders and ages, with different passions and dreams, each with his or her own unique set of strengths, and weaknesses, and problems, and idiosyncrasies.
How different is this from life itself?
All of humanity is living together on a proverbial train, moving around the sun on a predictable course, itself moving around the galaxy, and that around the local cluster, and even that moving around the universe.
Life ebbs and flows, inhales and exhales, until it exhales no more and instead transforms. All of us, headed in the same direction, to the same destination, a ‘last stop’ for our physical bodies, where the tracks end and we must get off and use our feet to continue on.
Are you familiar with your feet? Are your walking muscles strong and in good shape? Or will you, when the momentum of time stops carrying you forward, wither and die before you’re dead?
The Ghan slogs through the center of the continent, streaming the Australian Outback through the window and providing a never-ending source of distraction to my writing. I pause between acrobatic sessions of finger-dancing and look out the window to see metaphors everywhere.
If I were to allow myself, right now, to be distracted by that stream of beauty, I would not be creating these words. I need to first detach myself from what’s going on outside and focus my attention here, in the now.
This chair, my laptop, these thoughts.
These thoughts. I feel compelled to empty these thoughts from my brain, for their purpose feels too great to be contained in such a weakly guarded shell. They’re safer written down, transformed into something more tangible.
But there is danger in becoming too obsessed with the now. In writing that previous paragraph I found myself getting trapped in the past, my ego clinging on to every word. And so I turned my attention back to the streaming Outback, to that place where I had no choice but to let go.
The train will not stop for my ego, nor my curiosity, nor my inquisitive spirit. Momentum carries them forward, the same way time carries forward each of us, with or without our consent.
It doesn’t matter how interesting the landscape is or how fascinating the animal, or how quickly either disappears. Look! There’s a kangaroo hopping over the tall grass as it runs away from the drumming train. Look! There’s a emu! and another! But the train, unsympathetic and single-minded, continues chugging forward.
And so it is by observing this movement and embracing the impermanence of everything within my reach that I learn to enjoy that stream of beauty, to recognize its presence all around me.
I can now return my focus to the present.
The group of forty-four people are aware their time together is limited, so they don’t worry about looking funny when they awake. It doesn’t matter if strangers see the color of their toothbrush; they’ll probably never see these strangers again. It doesn’t matter if some people snore loudly or if others let off gas; we’re all getting off this train soon anyway.
The girl who is anxious about finding a place to charge her laptop doesn’t lose sleep over the lady who might miss her flight if the train arrives late, but the two travelers can still smile and share a friendly conversation about their favorite Australian city.
All of this is possible because it doesn’t matter where we’re going or when we’ll get there, but rather how we interact with those around us, to what and to whom we give our attention, and to where we focus the energy of our presence before this train’s final stop.
If we're looking forward -- into the unwritten darkness of the future -- then how can we possibly expect to create something coherent and comprehensible in the present?
Should we not, then, be looking behind us, allowing the lantern we're holding onto (the present moment) to illuminate the steps that we've already taken and then use that knowledge to understand where we're going?
It seems almost counter-intuitive (walking backwards to understand where you’re going) until you actually think about it. I tried to come up with a good analogy and I found that knitting works well.
In knitting, two needles are used to stitch together yarn and create clothing or other items. The yarn usually sits bundled up in a ball somewhere on the floor or in a bag and is unwoven as needed.
Like someone knitting, our focus in life shouldn’t always be on where the yarn is coming from (the future), but rather at the point it's coming together in our hands (the present) and occasionally at what has already been created (the past).
Using what has already been woven together, we make small adjustments along the way, pausing every now and then to step back, take in the bigger picture, and use that to reevaluate our progress.
If at any point in time we don't like the direction we're going, we shouldn’t search furiously for answers in the darkness of the future — we shouldn’t try to make sense of jumbled ball of yarn. That won’t tell us anything.
The interesting stuff isn’t actually in the future at all; it’s in the past, the cumulative result of everything we’ve already done. The future simply represents the source of material from which we can weave together anything.
The most interesting point, the point that deserves the most attention — the point where all the magic happens — is the present moment. The story of our life comes together in our hands, in this moment, not somewhere on the floor in a heap of yarn.
Urgency creates an attention poverty. It deprives us of the present moment and encourages us to make rash decisions, to act before thinking and to commit before considering.
Urgency disregards priorities and blatantly ignores what's important. It demands nothing short of immediate, unmindful action.
Things that are urgent are fleeting. They lose their value and their sense of importance with every passing moment and they feel important because they're fleeting.
We buy something because it's on sale or jump into a conversation so that we're heard; we stay on top of what's trending or keep up with our favorite shows, authors, or magazines; we stay with our job because it's a great opportunity or we indulge in the luxuries of life because, hey, life is short.
We chase these things because they're fleeting, because the unstoppable and relentless marching of time ensures that they will be gone, possibly forever, if we don't act now.
But what's important, what's truly important, remains important. It doesn't fade into the background when we ignore it. It doesn't disappear after a few days, weeks, or years.
It doesn't matter if we're rich or poor, if we're ten years old or a hundred years old, if it's Monday or Friday or if it's the weekend with a full moon: the important things remain important.
The important things are here to stay. They remain with us, patiently waiting until we're ready to sit quietly, bring our mind home, and give them the attention they deserve.
Urgency will never wait; you'll never catch it. Chasing what's urgent is a fools game. But embracing what's important, that's something that has meaning. That's something that has real value.
The urgent stuff will always be running away from us, but the important stuff -- the stuff that gives our life meaning -- is waiting patiently with open arms.