Friday, March 22, 2013

In a New York Minute

Don't worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.
Mary Scmich

"Regrets are illuminations come too late."
Joseph Campbell

One day you will get a phone call that will completely change your life.

And you won’t be ready for it.

Maybe this call will be about your own health, or that someone close to you has a fatal illness or been in an accident. In the worst cases that someone has died. I don’t point this out to be morbid, but instead as a reminder that life can truly change at any minute. In these moments we ask ourselves, why did we take everything for granted? Why didn’t we make peace with people we had wronged? Why didn’t we appreciate our youth, our health, our family, until they were gone?

Why am I bringing this up??

It’s silly really. In anticipation of the coming golf season, I was changing my spikes with a large hunting knife, (I’ve never been hunting). A moment later this same large knife was stuck directly in my hand, an inch from a major artery. I stood there for a moment and just pondered the absurdity of the situation. Is this the way it all ends? The Psychologist, in the kitchen, with the hunting knife? It seemed like such a crazy way to go..

Ultimately I was okay, but it really got me thinking. How many times in our daily lives do we flirt with disaster like this? That car that swerves out of the way when we are inches from an accident. The strange dream that leaves us gasping for breath in the middle of the night. It’s a fragile world we live in, and some people don’t in fact get lucky in these situations. As we get older we seem to know more and more people who die in accidents, or far too young from a medical condition. Life as we know it can change at any time really.

In a New York minute…

I’ve sat with far too many people who have been on the wrong end of these phone calls, and in some cases, the news they receive casts a shadow over their lives that they never recover from. In the end, it’s not ghosts or spirits that we are haunted by, but regrets, and as Mr. Campbell says in the opening quote, “regrets are illuminations that come too late.” Death and illness and tragedy teach us that there is no room for pettiness, spite, apathy, and laziness, and, although we all may agree in spirit with this idea, we always seem to forget. Then the inevitable questions begin to repeat in our heads. Why didn’t I tell my brother how much I appreciated him? Why didn’t I tell my mother I loved her? Why didn’t I call and say I’m sorry before it was too late?

If you have a chance to do these things, do them now. From my experience working with people who live with regret, it is clear to me that it is not the dead that haunt the living, but instead the living that haunt the dead.

 But their illuminations have come too late..

It took a bumbling and idiotic episode with a hunting knife to remind me of these things, as I too tend to forget. Life can change at any minute. It has inspired me to create an “in-basket” for my life of things I kind of know I “should” do, but never really get around to. This week I’ve reconnected with two old friends. Today I’m going to reach out to someone I’m in a stupid argument with and try to mend that fence. That will be a good start. It’s amazing how much of this unfinished business we accumulate over the course of a lifetime. Still, I want to have my illuminations now rather than later, and if that means working through a little discomfort, then so be it. This whole little life that we’ve built for ourselves is inherently breakable. This I know to be true. Everything can change in an instant.

In a New York minute..

Monday, March 4, 2013

Be Here Now

“It's being here now that's important. There's no past and there's no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can't relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don't know if there is one.”

George Harrison

You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking how you'll escape one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.”
― John Green Looking for Alaska

Hung out with some old friends the other day that I hadn’t seen in a long time. We laughed and talked about old times, and even made a point of visiting some places where we used to make our rounds so many years ago. It was a nice trip down memory lane.

But it was a little different..

I think we were all thinking that maybe just getting together would make it like it used to be, but it wasn’t so. We’re older and more responsible (they are) now, and not as young and foolish as we once were. Not that we haven’t gained some wisdom in the meantime. We have. It’s just interesting to me that we have such an interest in recapturing the past. Why is that?

I know for me it is a fleeting feeling that I have been chasing my whole life. I’ve traveled and worked all over and had all kinds of experiences, and I often find myself feeling a kind of intense longing to return to places and people that I once knew. Only it’s more than that. It’s a feeling of wanting to be young again and make discoveries again and take life as it is unfolding without knowing exactly what was going to happen next. But maybe the way I remember it is part of the problem also. Surely I had worries and regrets and bills and problems then as well. As Proust says so well, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” I’m sure that’s true. We often remember the good and forget a lot of the bad. Why do we do this?

Phillip Zimbardo explored this idea a great deal in his book The Time Paradox. In this book, he proposes there are six distinct ways we look at time, the first being what he calls a “past negative” which describes people who are anchored to negative experiences from their past. The second is what he calls “past positive.” These people instead remember all of the good things from their pasts, often at the expense of the present moment. The next is the present hedonist This is the type that lives almost exclusively in the now, indulging their every need in the moment without much thought for the future. We also have the present fatalist, who believes they are simply victims of fate and what it will bring, and that they have very little control over what happens in their lives. Then we have the future-oriented person, who believes much more in saving up for a rainy day then indulging in the present moment. And finally we have the transcendental future type, who lives in anticipation of a spiritual future removed from the pressures of this earthly realm.

So which path is the right one? Zimbardo feels that the healthiest perspective combines a positive view of the past with an ability to both enjoy the present while also making decisions that will benefit our future selves. Not an easy task to be sure. Want to know how your view of time compares to this ideal? Take the time inventory and see for yourself.

In thinking about this idea, I realized that maybe my longing to revisit the past was actually more of a philosophy than an actual desire, and it reminded me that there are still plenty of opportunities in the present moment to make lasting memories that will likely be part of some future longing. It’s a complicated idea to understand ourselves in flux, and it’s one that we often get wrong according to Dan Gilbert, who recently wrote about what he calls the “End of History Illusion.” In describing this phenomenon he reports, “Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our younger selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin. What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

This is a fascinating concept to consider as it relates to our understanding of time. We always think we are done changing, even as we are continually evolving into a different person on a daily basis. It’s only by looking back that we understand this though. I look back at myself as a teenager and think, “man I was an idiot back then.” Not realizing that my 60 year old self will probably say the same thing about who I am now. It’s interesting reading and definitely worth checking out.

The takeaway for me is to remember that perhaps the most important thing I can do to have both a memorable past and a productive future is to continue to be here now. To not get lazy with exploring new ideas and nurturing my sense of adventure and not falling into the trap of thinking that getting a little older means I’m done exploring the world. Sure I’m not as young and maybe my energy level isn’t what it used to be, but I do have a little more money now, and realize that there’s nothing wrong with staying in a hotel with a little hot water. All of life has tradeoffs. As much as I would like to think of my younger self as a swashbuckling James Bond type back then, pictures tell the story of more of a disheveled Chris Farley.

In truth I was never that good at picking up chicks. Past, present, future, amen..

So, in closing I want to remember to take some time and think about what the day will bring. I can’t revisit the past, and it’s a mistake to look too far towards the future. I know for me at least it’s often about finding ways to create meaning over the course of the day, even while my mind continues to drift both backwards to the past and forward to the future. As Ram Dass says in his book on the subject,

“The question we need to ask is whether there is any place we can stand in ourselves where we can look at all that's happening around us without freaking out, where we can be quiet enough to hear our predicament, and where we can begin to find ways of acting that are at least not contributing to further destabilization.”

I love that. “Acting in ways that are at least not contributing to further destabilization.” Not the loftiest of goals to be certain, but a reminder that we can at least remember to remain calm, and think about what it is we are doing today. Maybe we will create some meaning in our lives, or meet someone who completely alters our destiny, or make a memory that will be an indelible asset to our future selves in some significant way. We don’t really know. The best we can do is keep our eyes open and stay here. Stay in the now. Be here now.