Practical Philosophy

The Hourglass Neck of Now

Time expands out away from us in either direction. In the present moment, right now, there aren’t all that many possibilities you need to consider and worry about; there isn’t really much to do. Now is simple because it’s so close. As we get further away — in either the past or future direction — we get the option to entertain all kinds of possibilities like “What if…?” and “It would be nice if…”.

Time, in this way, works a bit like an hourglass. And the present is the small narrow neck of the hourglass through which everything that was the future travels on its way to becoming the past. But when you really sit and stay and live in that hourglass neck, you realize you don’t have much to worry about or stress. After all, grains of sand will keep coming down the hourglass until they don’t. You just need to rest in that present moment and the sand will go about its business. Where each grain ends up? No need to worry. Where exactly this one came from? Not something you have to know.

The power of “now” is that you really can, if you open fully and accept it, rest comfortably in it forever. We find this very hard to do because we get distracted. We find it hard to stay because all these curious grains of sand are floating by. If we want, we can follow and chain out into an imagined future forever. If we want, we can follow those grains back into their past forever, or in any of a million directions of fantasy.

A common objection we raise to the idea of hanging out in the “now” is that we can’t  strategize there. That it blocks us from learning from the past or projecting and planning about the future. And there is wisdom in the complaint. But it is worth recognizing how little actual time we spend doing those things — learning from the past and planning for the future — and how much time we instead spend idly speculating and entertaining ourselves (or worse yet, getting ourselves worked up and worried) instead of wisely using the past and future for places we journey to for guidance from time to time.

The neck of the hourglass is narrow. But it’s got a beautiful and reassuring simplicity in its narrowness. It can be a great source of confidence and comfort. We can rest there and be safe and secure, knowing that trouble is busy elsewhere. It’s not easy, but when you really are able to stay, many other things become quite clear.

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Personal Development

On Dreaming Your Dreams

One of the hardest things I’ve learned in my life is that dreaming doesn’t make it so. This sounds so self-evidently true that you’d think I never needed to learn it. But I knew it, and sometimes still know it, only intellectually. What’s needed to really grow and mature and become the person you want to be is to know it completely instinctively and automatically. You need to know it in your bones.

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OPW, poetry

OPW: “The Future”

Today on Other People’s Words, a beautiful poem by Wesley McNair called “The Future.”

On the afternoon talk shows of America
the guests have suffered life’s sorrows
long enough. All they require now
is the opportunity for closure,
to put the whole thing behind them
and get on with their lives. That their lives,
in fact, are getting on with them even
as they announce their requirement
is written on the faces of the younger ones
wrinkling their brows, and the skin
of their elders collecting just under their
set chins. It’s not easy to escape the past,
but who wouldn’t want to live in a future
where the worst has already happened
and Americans can finally relax after daring
to demand a different way? For the rest of us,
the future, barring variations, turns out
to be not so different from the present
where we have always lived—the same
struggle of wishes and losses, and hope,
that old lieutenant, picking us up
every so often to dust us off and adjust
our helmets. Adjustment, for that matter,
may be the one lesson hope has to give,
serving us best when we begin to find
what we didn’t know we wanted in what
the future brings. Nobody would have asked
for the ice storm that takes down trees
and knocks the power out, leaving nothing
but two buckets of snow melting
on the wood stove and candlelight so weak,
the old man sitting at the kitchen table
can hardly see to play cards. Yet how else
but by the old woman’s laughter
when he mistakes a jack for a queen
would he look at her face in the half-light as if
for the first time while the kitchen around them
and the very cards he holds in his hands
disappear? In the deep moment of his looking
and her looking back, there is no future,
only right now, all, anyway, each one of us
has ever had, and all the two of them,
sitting together in the dark among the cracked
notes of the snow thawing beside them
on the stove, right now will ever need.

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