An aphorism popped up on my phone before. Two things prevent us from happiness, it read; living in the past and observing others.
Things like this pop up quite regularly, and for the most part I glance at them and promptly forget. This one held my interest though. Was it true? I wondered. Did I believe it?
It probably is true, objectively speaking. We’re always being urged to live in the moment, and this is but a more specific variation of it. What gain is there to dwell in the past? And isn’t close observation an invitation to unwelcome thoughts?
If life is but to experienced then I would consider it sage advice. That’s not how I see life though, and is antithetical to my home-wrought beliefs.
Firstly, there is some common sense regarding the first part of the comment. You can’t live in the past. It’s done and dusted, and whatever happened then can’t be changed now. You have to live in the here and now, because that’s all you’ve got.
Still, you would hope to learn from history. What happened before informs who you are now and to disregard that is to be no different from an instinctual beast. In an ideal world there is wisdom to be found in experience and new learnings. It may be ‘done’, but it remains true.
The past for me has always been significant. The very fact I keep a journal like this attests to a need to record and preserve. My life may not amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s all I have. One day I’ll be dust too, and whether there remains a record of me or not I do not know – but at least I am putting down a trail.
You live a rich life that is full of things, romance and drama, controversy and contemplation, adventure and struggle. That’s if you’re lucky. Once it has happened it’s gone, it’s true, but that’s no reason to disown it. For me to describe and consider the events of my life is an attempt in two – to make some broader sense of it, and to keep it close to me. If I don’t I fear it will be drift off and be lost.
That’s why every so often I’ll put down some long forgotten memory that has come back to me. It’s a missing piece of the puzzle I put into its rightful place by recording it. There is great wonder in that also. How am I that person? How am I this one? This past is my identity, even if I can’t make sense of it.
There are other things I record too, a contextual history if you like. In more recent times there are recurring themes such as my mother. Once more wonder plays a part. She was there so long, and now she is gone: how can that be so? There is sentimentality, but also inquiry. I play with the edges of these things, like scars that have not quite healed. I look at myself, what I feel and think, how I react, in all of it seeking an oblique view of the familiar.
I don’t want to lose that either. It’s mine.
And what about observing? Well, I can understand how life might be simpler with your eyes and ears shut, but what’s the point? That would be hell for me. There was a book, I can’t remember which, where the protagonist declared he was an eye. I can understand that. To see, to hear, to query and wonder at are to me the elements of an intelligent life. Life enters through dumb receptacles, but if we’re lucky we can filter and analyse and truly feel what those dumb receptacles experience. For me that is life.
Finally, there is the false premise at the heart of the aphorism. Am I wrong in thinking that most people believe the ultimate aim of life is happiness? I’m not one of those people. I’m not against happiness. If it’s going around I’ll greedily accept it. It’s a secondary consideration though. It’s not the aim in itself, but hopefully the outcome of more important things.
What are those things? There are words that describe the sense of what I’m talking about – curiosity, knowledge, romance, wonder, and so on – but they are not the thing. What is it then? It’s to strive mightily, I think. For what? Knowledge, feeling, understanding…
My aphorism then is almost the opposite of that which led to this entry. Live beyond this moment. Life may be linear, but our experience is not limited to that plane. My advice is to never cease to wonder. Ask why and how, and don’t be afraid of asking for more. And if you can, choose to feel deeply, the sorrow as well as the joy.