Living in Time
by Kenneth Stewart, Ph.D.
Time is not always the linear force we think it is,
moving from yesterday to today to tomorrow.
It's not that simple. At least not for our emotional
lives, at least not for our memories, our longings,
our fears. We can get stuck in the past, captured
by memories of past injustice or abuse. We can get trapped in the future, fearing the terrible events
that our imagination intensifies into anxieties. Or we can be lured into and then trapped in the
future of our hopes and dreams. And some hopes can be destructive for us now in the present.
There are events in our pasts that have had a deep and largely positive impact on us. Events like the birth of a child, a religious experience , a wedding, or falling in love,. These events are often turning points that help shape our personal history. These special events - lingering in memory with a golden glow - bring to mind Wordsworth's lines:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, or glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
Golden memories cover all five sense and become touchstones of personal history: the first time we saw our newborn child, the touch of a lover's skin, the smell of new-mown hay, the sound of meadowlarks in prairie pastures, the taste of freshly baked bread. So when we have similar sensory experiences in the present, these memories, like dear friends we haven't heard from in a long time, return and linger for a while. Like vivid dreams from a night's sleep, they infuse our thoughts and daydreams for several days after their arrival.
The darker memories
Other memories, memories of abuse, loss, accidents, conflicts - these memories can haunt us like gargoyles perched on elaborate, old buildings. But instead of being symbols of protection from evil, they are reminders of the presence of evil, the presence of suffering in painful events from a darker past. Horrifying memories like these linger in darkened corners of our cell, and leap out of the darkness at the slightest invitation - triggered by vaguely similar events in the present - and scare the hell out of us. Or the scare the hell in us . . . and we can't escape. We bang on the bars and yell at the jailer to let us out, but the jailer has gone home and left us alone. Deep inside the tissue of our mid-brain these traumas are stored. They live there and wait for the slightest invitation - from certain words spoken, or certain things we have seen - to leap out and bring us to our knees in fear, pain or deep sadness.
Knowledges and abilities from the past
The past is where we've been blessed or where we've been cursed. But it's also where we've been taught, where we've learned all the things we know, from hard-won lessons to trivial facts. This is where we have learned how to survive, how to protect ourselves, how to hide or step out in the open, how to make things or take things apart, where to go and where to avoid going. The past is also where we have learned grand theories and sweeping ideas and the small pieces of local knowledge or trivial bits of local culture. All these things we have learned, all these things we know, are not only precious, but also vital beyond all reckoning. This knowledge can be treasured and treated forever as true, or it can be revised in light of new evidence. When what we know is devalued or dismissed
And what we have come to know is sometimes challenged by others who would have power over us. Those bullies gain power by getting in our face or indirectly insinuating that what we "know" is not true, not important, and not relevant. Our knowledge doesn't count, only theirs does. Our reality becomes shaky and their reality becomes an unquestioned text that is shoved down our throats. Instead of thinking, "I know a thing or two," we mumble "I don't know what's true anymore. Nothing makes sense." Tenaciously hanging on to our hard-won knowledge is an act of resistance. It's an act of resistance against those who would overwhelm us, make us characters in their story rather than admiring how we are characters in our own story.
Remembering what we know
We establish our identity - our story - by remembering and documenting that we know a thing or two. We know that we are persons of worth. We know that we have a wide range of abilities. We know what is a weed and what is not. We know how to mend fences or fry chicken so it stays tender. We know how to work hard and how to play, how to be practical and how to get goofy. We know what hurts and what heals. And, most important, we know that we don't know everything, that sometimes what we have come to know needs revision in light of new experiences or new evidence. We want to value what we know, but we don't want to hold it so rigidly that we can't revise what we know or learn new things. We want our knowledge flexible, like an expensive, lightweight, fly rod, so flexible that we will feel the smallest trout at the end of our line. Information like that isn't transmitted very well through a rigid, clunky rod. Nor can we learn new things or revise what we already know if we're rigid and can't pick up and transmit those slight cues from under the surface. We also know that the only certainty is that there is no certainty. So we treat our knowledge respectfully, even guard it, but we also know how important it is to remain curious, to continue learning. All these things we know and continue to learn accumulate like snow drifts during a January storm.
The importance of curiosity - the antidote to depression
If knowledge is valuable and our curiosity keeps us growing, then anything that threatens that curiosity, this most valuable of our abilities, is very dangerous to us. In her book, Black Sun, Julia Kristeva says that depression is an absence of interest. In this sense, Adam Phillips suggests that depression is a self-cure for the terrors of aliveness, of being alive to one's losses and therefore to one's desires. "The desolate apathy of depression is less painful than the meanings it attempts to blank off. The possibility of meaning, the release of curiosity, is what the depression works to deny." (Adam Phillips, On Flirtation, p. 83). Recovering from the dead stare, the unarticulated numbness of depression requires accepting an invitation to curiosity, curiosity not only about our losses, but curiosity about what our losses have taught us. These lessons need to be articulated, to be given a voice, to be put in a story which is then speculated about, elaborated on, and its plot expanded across time. Through conversation with others, not just in our own heads, this story slowly becomes our story and we come to realize that we are the hero of that story. We are no longer just a character in our parent's or someone else's story, but the main character in our own story, a story with not only a past and a present, but a future as well.
The failure to move forward: Deadening repetitions and destructive hope
Past the mindfulness of the present moment lies the ever-shifting future; ever shifting, at least, for those who can stay flexible in imagination and action. We move forward with all our powers when we avoid deadening repetitions, those unconscious attempts to fix painful events from our past. "These dismaying repetitions- this unconscious limiting or coercion of the repertoire of life stories - create the illusion of time having stopped - or people believe as if time has stopped. In our repetition we seem to be staying away from the future, keeping it at bay. What are called symptoms are these (failed) attempts at closure, at calling halt to something. Like provisional deaths, they are spurious forms of mastery." (Adam Phillips, On Flirtation, p. 153).
Insanity is doing the same damn thing over and over, expecting different results. Going over and over the same ideas, the same failed attempts at getting control of a situation, of a relationship pulls us into one special kind of deadening cycle: destructive hope. This is the kind of hope which we blindly hold on to - expecting something different, expecting something good for ourselves that never comes. It's the kind of hope that abused men and women hold on to, hoping destructively that their abuser, their tormentor, will finally change. Afraid of going on alone into their future, they stay addicted to destructive hope in a stubborn refusal to let go. As Phillips says above, these repetitions, these destructive hopes are "spurious forms of mastery" for those caught up by them; to let go would be to give up, to fail. Meanwhile, we hold on to the illusion that we are mastering our weakness. Yet, by doing so, it's like continuing to hold on to the business end of a cattle prod, while the owner at the other end wields it with sadistic pleasure.
Fear and worry
Every fear we have, every worry that we carry represents some attempt to control the future while living in the present. Each time we worry, each time we get caught up in anxiety, we tremble at an imagined future we cannot control. No matter how hard we worry about the future, our bodies still remain in the present. The stronger the anxiety the more we become stuck in some place in the future, anywhere from a few minutes from now to the next day, the next week, or next few months from now. Over time, nagging doubts can turn into worries, worries can turn into fears, and fears can turn into crippling obsessions that wrap around us like some giant snake, squeezing the life out of us. These imagined or real terrors await us, holding onto us with a death grip, trapping us in a darkened future. The curiosity we need to explore our options, to find better solutions is lost to an anxiety that demands all our attention. We can only afford to be curious when we feel safe.
Hope and healing
Healing hope, the kind of hope that sustains terminal patients, that can lengthen life, that sometimes miraculously heals us, this hope is meaning-giving and life-affirming. This kind of hope refuses to stop at normal or expected limits. It's part of the triumvirate of faith, hope, and love that serve as the cornerstone of many of the world's religions.
In his epic poem, The People, Yes, Carl Sandburg writes:
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding for work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prism of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death,
The reaching is alive.
This hope guides us through a darkened present toward some unknowable future where dreams are made and life is lived, however tragic, comic, heroic, or banal. The final lines of this poem pull forward.. toward "lights and keepsakes, precious beyond all reckoning."In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for
keeps, the people march:
"Where to? what next?"
How well we remember
How we live in time depends on how well we remember, how well we can keep alive what we have learned or what we have come to know, and who has been an audience or witness for what has happened to us. We need an audience so we can assert with authority: "Things have happened to me. There are others who know about it. I'm not alone in this." We value what's happened to us. But we don't become stuck in either nostalgia or trauma.
How we are mindful
How we live in time depends on how capable we are of being centered and mindful in the present. This is the only place our bodies are. This is the place where we live, where we breathe in and out, where "wherever you go, there you are." The utter simplicity of mindfulness shows us how we can move toward the future without destructive hope or paralyzing fear. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, says in her book, Start Where You Are: Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we're in. Yet if we can experience the moment we're in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice. One can appreciate and celebrate each moment - there's nothing more sacred. There's nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there's nothing more!
How we improvise and adapt
How we live in time depends on how we negotiate the future as a place to fulfill our dreams, a place in which to place our hopes, a place in which to expand our knowledge and enrich our complexity. If we encounter fear in our imagined forays into some future time, we must remember that while past and present knowledge will not always prepare us for the future, it will have to do. It's not just how well we have prepared ourselves, how well we have stocked up on the provisions of food and knowledge and useful tools. It's also how well we can adapt those tools and knowledges for those inevitable unforeseen challenges. Will we get stuck in recursive cycle of repetition, practicing the same thing over and over, expecting different results? Or are we prepared to improvise, to adapt and create, welcoming the unknowable, and not succumbing to the inevitable.
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