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The Tyranny of the Present

On the folly of trying to live in The Now

Late at night I often think about what it would be like to live in the countryside. I could live in a cabin with a quiet stream just outside. There would be a long wooden bookshelf, a comfy leather chair, and candles that flicker freckled light. I think about this life not so much because it is the life I want, but because it is an example of the life I could have. There are thousands of different paths we can take, different lives we can have, and yet, of course, we can only choose one.

We could live in the countryside in northern Norway, in an abandoned atelier in Portland, in a high-rise in Los Angeles, in an artist’s commune in upstate New York, in a houseboat in Seattle, in a loft in Berlin, on a vineyard in Bordeaux, in a studio in Buenos Aires, in a yurt in a Turkish village. Not everyone is so fortunate to have choices, but those who do more often confine themselves to a single place, to a single style of life early on not because they have to but because the instability of change proves too much to bear.

Yet the real burden is the tyranny of the present: the realization that what we do today informs tomorrow and that tomorrow is one day closer to death. After all, life itself is a memento mori. Even our happiest moments only serve to remind us that one day, soon, we will not be as happy as we are now, that the highest point of happiness presages nothing but an impending descent.

Although we are told by self-help books and by people who are older and ostensibly wiser that we must live in The Now, there is nothing quite as crushing. The knowledge that youth is fleeting, that youth might be all that makes life worthwhile is a heavy burden.

And still, even as youth fades, it does not relieve the burden of The Now. The realization of our own mortality comes into tighter focus with age. Acquaintances, friends, and family pass away throughout the years and The Now only becomes more precious and therefore all the more heavy.

There is an image burned into my mind of a grandfather going through his address book and erasing names. He is silent. He does not cry, but his lips are pursed and his once strong hands now so frail push the pink eraser back and forth until the names of comrades, colleagues, and close friends are gone, disappeared into dust, eaten by the ether.

Mortality is a flurry of randomness, and it drives us ever deeper into needing to appreciate The Now. We feel that if we look back or if we look forward then we will miss something. And so the cycle continues where we are forced to reckon with the present moment, seizing it, carpe diem!, trying to throw on a smile and pretend that happiness for a second is better than no happiness at all.

And yet, and yet, there is a reason that The Now must pass: if beauty and happiness were forever, they would no longer be recognizable because a world forever perfect is a world forever dull. The beauty of a day does not depend on it lasting forever, and a moment need not be momentous to matter. In fact, we should desperately hope that happiness does not last forever. Take bits of happiness. Do not be like a child greedy for more candy, be contented even if you never get the countryside home or the two-bedroom in Paris for the burden of The Now cannot touch you if you are not chasing after it.

But my god, if you do grasp your dreams, if you do find a near-perfect Now, stop where you are and have a look around. For even though we are always within the tyrannical claws of The Now, always burdened, always aware of mortality and the fleeting nature of time, the fingers of The Now sometimes open up just enough to afford us a view. Perhaps, if we squint our eyes, we can make out the shining cityscape and babbling streams somewhere in the distance. But do it now, look now! For the fingers of the beast will soon close and the view will be no more for even the burdensome Now will soon be swept away into nothing.

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16 Comments

  1. Little Freckled One says

    I have always had a problem of living in the now because I feel like everything I do in the now is to prepare myself for the future. Maybe it’s because I live in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s because I come from a family that values the office job and the white picket fence. Maybe it’s because I let society pressure me to always want more than I have. Up until the past few months, living in the now was almost impossible because of all the anxiety I was feeling. Quarter-life crisis… paying off student loans… finding my place in the world… And then it all came crashing down. Time to make up my own rules and live by them. Thank you for your words to remind us.

  2. In some ways this reminds me a lot of Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Not so much in your outcome, but in subject matter and especially how you used The Now… I’m liking your writing, Cody!

  3. You are writing all these beautiful pieces about things i’ve been daydreaming from time to time, I am always like “oh my God that’s exactly what I was thinking about two days ago” great work as always👌

  4. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had and commented:
    “For even though we are always within the tyrannical claws of The Now, always burdened, always aware of mortality and the fleeting nature of time, the fingers of The Now sometimes open up just enough to afford us a view. ” Wow. True word magic.

  5. Oh, but the secret isn’t that beauty passes but that everything is beautiful. The old are as beautiful as the young and there is grace even in pain and dying. Beautifully written.

  6. Maybe we should embrace the Now, for actively living our dreams can only be done in the present. Maybe moreso than a burden, it is a struggle to strive and fight even harder to focus on this minute. For you know that only in this minute are you able to act, steering the image to possibly…a grandfather at play with his grandchildren, or watching home movies or something, yes? 🙂

  7. That’s an interesting take on the Now. I never found it to be burdensome, nor have I ever found my happiness, however fleeting, to be pretentious. I know that my life will end, today, tomorrow, fifty years from this moment… who knows? Living in the Now means I don’t worry about it because it is inevitable, and all I have is this moment. Right here, right now. Does it have to be a happy moment? Not really. As you said, that would be boring. I learn from the past, I plan for a future that may or may not happen (for many reasons, death only being one of them), but I live in the Now. It’s really as simple as that.

    I like your post though, very thought invoking.

  8. You’re too analytical. You have to take the now without much thought or you diminish the beauty of the now by thought of what else could be, what should be, what wasn’t. Now is here and gone in an instant. You can reflect on it after. You know the saying “carpe diem”.
    Leslie

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