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.