Learn from the past, live in the present, plan for the future.
This is another quote I picked up from my dad. I'm sure he said it to me more than once, probably while we tinkering on something important in the garage. I recently read a book by Jeff Goins, The In-Between, which highlights the importance of this quote. More on that later. First, I'd like to pick a few nits. Mainly, I wonder if we've gotten the quote out of order. Perhaps it's better stated,
Learn from the past, plan for the future, but live in the present.
It's important that I start by saying, like much of what I write, this is very much an aspirational perspective for me. I'm absolutely horrible at this. I would like to suppose that I do a decent job at learning from the past, but really I'm sure I've recommitted many more mistakes than I should have. Planning for the future is no problem for me. I love to dream big and imagine, and think on what could be some day. Living in the present is a real problem, largely because all of the planning for the future I enjoy.
Actually, I'm probably hiding a bit behind the term "planning". It may start out as planning, but slowly (and sometimes, not so slowly) it turns into stress, frustration, projecting, or complaining. What begins as "what if I could..." grows into "why can't I...NOW."
It's not uncommon for me to carry around a burden that doesn't exist, one that hasn't been created yet, at least not in a real, tangible sense. This, is part of the struggle - Why haven't I done this yet? Why haven't I created this yet? When will I ever get there? - as I shift from planning for the future to trying to live in it. This truly is an exercise in futility. It's exhausting, and if I'm not careful, can be extremely damaging to the here and now.
Because of this, I don't always spend enough time living in the present. And by enough time, I mean, all my time. I can easily slip into these daydream type states where I'm trying to live into a future that I'm not ready for yet, or that's not quite ready for me. And that creates a great deal of unnecessary and unhealthy tension.
We can still learn from the past, and plan for the future, and live in the present at the same time. The problems come when we start to live in those other places, rather than right where we are, NOW.
Virtual reality is a big thing now. Maybe it's been big for awhile, I don't know. But it's a thing. You can strap on some special goggles and transport to other places. My friend Mark uses them in classrooms to help students experience virtual field trips. They can "walk" around pyramids, the September 11 memorial, Washington, D.C., or maybe even the moon. And when they put those goggles on, it really feels like they are in those places. They have video games, in which you become the main character, and actually live out the game yourself. It's wild.
Where Are You Living?
Our biggest problem isn't that we don't learn from the past, it's that we continue to live in it, long after it's gone. And, not to get too philosophical here, but it's always gone. The past is always no longer there. You know what I mean? It doesn't actually exist. Committing the same mistake over and over again is certainly something to avoid, or at least, work on. But worse still, is destroying yourself over past mistakes, carrying them around as if you can somehow erase them if you think about it long enough. For some, the regrets of the past are what get us. Rather than learning from, or moving on from, those things that happened years ago, or even just yesterday, we wallow in regret. We live there.
"What if I'd...?"
"Should I have...?"
"Things would be different if..."
And we end up creating a life there, as if it was some virtual reality game. We have this character that lives in this past world, and replays past situations, as if they could somehow be corrected or changed. This is not about acknowledging mistakes, making amends, or growth. This is about actually being present in a place that no longer exists, and we simply cannot, no matter how hard we try.
Others may live in the past to grab hold of a person they once were, or thought they once were. They are on a search for a glory of the past, or a perceived glory, that they will never be able to catch. This manifests itself in depressing and sometimes dangerous ways, as people try to somehow recreate the power, influence, or prestige they once had (or imagined they did).
Check out this guy as an example, if you need a little humor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xL-VX3WbA9U
It's best if we can learn from the past. No doubt. But if not, we at least have to move on. Make some new mistakes. Shoot, make the same mistake, just make it right now. Maybe you'll learn from it this time. But we have to keep our lives out of the past.
As I mentioned, the folly of my ways rests in my failed attempts at living in the future. People with this challenge may get in a hurry to be somewhere, become someone, or do something that is just not here yet. Planning for or working towards the future is one thing. Obsessing over, worrying about, or living in the future is something else. It's another impossible task. And not the kind of impossible task that motivational speakers talk about when they say nothing is impossible, or break it up and say, "I'm possible" (get it?). Other than my man Marty McFly, It's actually completely, not possible to live in the future.
People use all sorts of methods to escape reality, or in other words, to get away from where they are NOW. Virtual reality, video games, substance abuse, vacations, daydreaming etc. Not all of these things are bad. The main thing, for most of us, is that we shouldn't be trying to escape from or to anything.
Many times, we become consumed with looking for the "big" moments. The big career break when someone will finally discover all of the great work we've been doing and reward us for it. That one big night when we will meet our soulmate. The big family vacation we will take that will bring everyone closer together and make up for all of the time away during the year. The big purchase that will make us feel better and will serve as a pay off for all of our hard work.
Jeff Goins, in The In-Between, argues that most of our lives are spent in the in between moments. Between one thing and the next. Between one big moment and another. Between what we just did and what we are looking forward to. In other words, between what we just left behind (the past) and where we are headed next (the future). Live in the present. Here. Now.
As we leave one big moment, and anticipate the next, that's where all of the living occurs. So we are constantly living in the gap. What really matters is what we do in that place...this place. Goins writes,
"The big moments are the tiny moments. The breakthroughs are often silent, and they happen in the most unassuming places." - If we'll let them.
Here and Now
We have to be living in the here and now in order to appreciate those things that we once and often see as tiny and insignificant. If not, we will miss out on some really important stuff. As we weigh ourselves down with the past, or over-dream about the future we'll miss the moments, lessons, and experiences that are right in front of us. Here is a small example from my life:
I took this picture one day when Harper was painting. He likes to paint, and I often get frustrated because I have to help him paint. I don't really have anything else to be doing most of the time, but my future oriented life says that I should be doing something else that is productive and moving me towards this future self that I'm aspiring towards. More often than I'd like, I'm not very patient with him when he wants me to get his paint out, lay down the paper so he doesn't mess up the counter, change his clothes so he doesn't mess them up, help him wash his brush, and occasionally paint with him. But on this day, I did alright, and I snapped this picture while we were painting together.
It instantly became a favorite for me and my wife. Talk about living in the moment. The concentration. The tongue. He is right where he is. And I'm so grateful I was there with him.
This was a random Saturday afternoon in the middle of whenever. It was a nothing moment. Completely insignificant on the calendar, or the plans, and nowhere near "big". But it mattered. I was right there with him. We were both "here". And I enjoyed the heck out of it.
We need to do whatever we can to appreciate these moments as much as we can, to make them feel big, right then and there. Not in a celebratory sense, but right in the fabric of our being. This, now, here is what matters. And we will miss out on important moments, people, and opportunities if we don't Live. Here. Now.
This is the only place we can ever truly, be.
We can move further away from the past or closer to the future we desire, but only if we start from right where we are.
I'm pulling for you.