I always brought a calendar. I liked to maintain my place in time, literally, with little numbered squares, filled up with notes and checked off with a victorious, slanting line. It was my way of keeping the future in view. I wanted the future visibly in front of me. Always. I was adamant about it. At home. At my grandparents’ house. On vacation. Me and my calendar.
I was six.
It didn’t matter that it was a one-dimensional representation of the future; I wanted to see it. Once I brought my calendar with me on a pseudo-camping trip—or at least the closest our family ever came to “roughing it.” (The cabins had no air-conditioning, which was a pretty primitive situation for us.) I arrived, thumbtack in hand, and within two minutes had my calendar pinned in the dark wood wall above my bed. My dad promptly informed me that this was a “No Calendars Allowed” vacation, defending his moratorium with the injunction that I just “enjoy the trip” or something like that.
What are we… animals?!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived with one foot in the future. Sometimes two. My eyes are always focused on what lies in the distance; my mind always calculating what I will do as opposed to what I am doing. Sadly, I’ve missed out on many little joys that each day brings simply by not embracing each day. After all, one of the most effective ways to squander the present is to overlook it.
Yes, living in the future is a bad habit that violates every Hallmark greeting card ever written and flouts the proverbs of bookshelf decorations and gift shop knickknacks across the country. Heck, everyone from Walt Whitman to George Harrison has cautioned us against sacrificing the joys of today on the altar of tomorrow because (say it with me): “Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”
Still… Is there any way I can get a gift receipt?
Don’t get me wrong. There is always—always—something to be grateful for, even in the hardest times. But sometimes life is less “Carpe Diem” and more “Survive the Diem.” It’s like running the last few miles of a marathon. Do you wish the marathon had never happened? Of course not. But do you really want to “be present” while fully immersed in the misery of mile twenty-three?
Pro Tip: Never yell “Be present!” to someone at mile twenty-three.
Perhaps it’s a lack of emotional fortitude on my part, but there are times in life when the amount of pain in the present is too much, when the hurt is too overwhelming to absorb without drowning. In those times, looking ahead is a good thing. It helps us steady ourselves in the midst of tumult. It’s like being seasick: When the water gets rough, you’ve got to keep your eyes on the horizon. If you focus on the tossing waves, well, you’re more likely to toss your cookies.
Looking ahead—and perhaps more importantly, having something to look forward to—gives us hope. Hope itself is forward-thinking. It is almost paradoxical, but only with hope can we truly appreciate the moment, because hope reminds us that moments are temporary.
In his epic novel, From Here to Eternity, James Jones notes, “It is the knowledge of the unendingness and of the repetitious uselessness, the do it up so it can be done again, that makes Fatigue fatigue.” Moments, without the quality of transience, are no longer moments; they are monotony. Just ask Sisyphus: Once a king, Sisyphus was cursed by Zeus to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder up a hill over and over again only to watch it roll to the valley below after each effort.
Yo, Sisyphus! Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called… Oh, never mind.
Mercifully, we are not doomed to a Sisyphean itinerary. In addition to the present, we have another gift: the ability to look ahead. It’s why we set goals. Goals keep us motivated. They drive us to press forward, even when it’s difficult. Looking ahead reminds us that the present is not the future. Looking ahead allows us to say, “Things aren’t okay now, but they will be.” When things are hard, we may not have the ability to live in the future, but we can live in the idea of the future.
Looking ahead is a double-edged sword. If we’re not careful, it can rob us of today’s joys. If we use it correctly, it can free us from today’s sorrows.
By all means, seize the day. But if you happen to be going through a time when the hurt is almost more than you can bear, don’t be afraid to put one foot in the future, for sometimes it’s the future that enables us to survive the present. Sure, you can make the best of each day, but you don’t have to pitch a tent. As Winston Churchill put it, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
And bring your calendar.