I’m not a person who posts catchy or meaningful sayings on my wall, but occasionally I've been tempted. “Time flies whether you’re having fun or not” seems especially significant as I get closer to 70 than 60. And, I have to remind myself that “perfect is the enemy of good” every time I put off working on a piece of writing or another project because I’m worried it won’t be the best thing I’ve ever done. But my favorite these days probably should find its way onto a poster that I could hang in front of every desk or chair I sit in: “If you’re thinking about the future, you’re making things up.”
I spend a lot of time in this pursuit, even when I’m not aware of it. I plan the next steps in my life, I worry about which bad things might happen, and I strategize continually to try and create the exact result I want. Even in the midst of a conversation with someone, or reading a book, or binge-watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” I’m doing it. Out of the blue I’ll realize I’ve been six months ahead in my thoughts, concerned that we won’t have the money we need to do something we want to do, or planning some event in detail, including parts over which I have no control. This is also when I remember the truth, that I’m really just making things up.
I have helped to bring good things into my life, but I also know that much of what occurs is totally out of my influence.
By this time in my life, I understand completely why I do this. It’s hard to stay in the moment, to appreciate what’s in front of us, and to trust that everything will be fine, no matter what happens. It’s almost impossible to hold onto the idea that life is full of surprises—both good and bad—and that I will be able to handle them, no matter what form they take. To make matters worse, because I’ve spent so many years concentrating on my plans, I know that I have some inner belief that any good fortune I’ve experienced is probably a result of my process. I’m sure that to some degree I have helped to bring good things into my life, but I also know that much of what occurs is totally outside of my influence.
Still, I’m not foolish enough to believe that, at nearly 66, I’m going to be able to just let go of this behavior and start leaving everything to the wisdom of the universe. But I do know that it’s possible to retrain myself a little. Not surprisingly, I had no idea how to start when I began thinking about how to leave the future to the future and focus instead on the present. It helped to remind myself that it is impossible to make everyone in my life behave a certain way, to anticipate every expense I might have in the next six months so I can guarantee how much I’ll save, or even to know what might happen tomorrow.
What I can control—although that’s a strong word—is my own thought process, my behavior, and my attention to the real world around me as it’s happening. As an example, let’s say I really didn’t want to catch a cold or the flu because it would throw me off my running schedule. I could spend long hours hoping everyone with cold or flu germs would stay away from me or get flu shots. Or, I could concentrate on myself—get more sleep, eat properly, and even realize that my life is not going to fall apart if I get sick and have to stop running for a couple of weeks. This analogy makes sense to me because it’s not the kind of thing I actually obsess about in real life. My fixations are more about scarcity and how in my made-up worst version, I’ll never have all that I want or need.
So I’m working these days on just bringing myself back to the center, to myself, to what is happening at this moment. It reminds me of another of those adages that resonates with me: “You can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.” What has surprised me is how often I have to remind myself to stay here, in this moment, at this time. I slide into fear and consequent contemplation at least once an hour, and I often take a long trip into my fears and fantasies before I even realize I’m gone.
But this week, when something happened at work that I’ve never experienced in 10 years of doing this kind of job, I didn’t fall apart. I didn’t chide myself for not knowing this was going to occur. I didn’t go right to the idea that I hate my job because it sometimes scares me. I just handled it, with huge help from my co-workers. Of course that’s always what happens in real life. In my ruminations about the future, surprises can destroy the perfect fantasy. In day to day life, where we’re all trying our best to be present, surprises remind us that we’re fine and that we’re facing life with courage and humor. At least most of the time.