I spent time this weekend with my son Ivan, going over old photo albums before close of escrow on a vacation home we have had since he was six (he’s thirty now). When he was young, “advanced” technology was to store photos in bulky albums on thick pages with sticky surfaces and a plastic film that adhered by static to the page. We had dozens of such albums, all precious, with memories if not fresh at least immediately recalled with squeals, laughter and the occasional groan. Hundreds more unfiled and completely disorganized photos had been tossed years ago into the outgrown Snoopy suitcases from his brother’s and his early childhood travels, and it all just kept coming at us until 1AM this morning.
The documentation of our past is distilled now (sort of) into one box packed to the brim with photos Ivan will scan some day. But pleasurable–and painful–as our evening of memories was, the thing that sticks with me most is something he told me he recently heard on a radio interview. Only later did he realize how profound one tossed-off line really was, and he can’t remember now who made the comment.
“I’m living the rest of my life in the future,” the person said.
Okay, at first it sounds obvious. But is that really what we do?
As I looked at photos of my children at birth, at two, at six, and as I saw myself again as I looked in the different decades of my adult life, I found it meaningful to reminisce, but in the end, that’s allI can do. It’s over. I can laugh, I can cry, I can wince, I can chuckle, but I can’t go back. Much as I love my family and friends, I don’t miss people I haven’t seen for years because I know they aren’t the same, if indeed they are still with us in this life at all. All I can miss is what once was. It feels good to remember and honor them, but there’s not much sustenance for the future in dwelling on what we can’t have back.
I do a much better job than I used to avoiding expenditures of emotional and mental energy on things I cannot change, and the biggest part of what none of us can change is what has already happened. Still, if I add up how much time I have spent processing and reprocessing the disappointments, sorrows, frustrations, and antagonisms that people and events have brought me over time, I bet it adds up to months, if not years of my life I have spent living in the past.
I know sometimes we can’t move on until we come to grips with negative aspects of the past, but unless we understand that we are living the rest of our lives in the future, the point of plumbing that past is lost. The whole point of healing is that it sets us up for tomorrow to be as good as possible.
On the other hand, a decision to live our lives in the future is not in any way a validation of idle daydreaming at the expense of living in the present, or a decision to do nothing today because there’s always tomorrow. Far from it. Daydreaming and procrastination are not living in the future, they’re living nowhere at all.
At the lowest moments of my life, I told myself “It is your job to be happy again,” and indeed I treated my situation that way. I didn’t expect to be happy again soon, or easily, or once and for all. I knew, however, that if I concentrated on being open to things, however small, that brought joy to me before, and if I stopped myself from wallowing in what I could neither change nor learn much of use from, I would be happy again some day. And I am.
Understanding that we are spending the rest of our lives in the future helps us to be ready for whatever lies ahead, and to move forward with courage, hope, energy, and focused intelligence. It means realizing that the future will be made up of one moment after another of living in a present that hasn’t arrived yet and doing what we can now to thrive when it does.
I am living the rest of my life in the future in that sense. I intend to be as ready for it, and as resilient, as I can be. Beyond that, I’ll just wait to be surprised.