The signature line on my email currently reads: "Who we are is a quality of the moment. What we have done in the past cannot be undone, and what we have promised for the future remains but a promise. So live each moment in the awareness that it defines you."
I have enjoyed stealing pithy quotes from my literary heroes in the past, but it is my signature after all, so using my own words seems more appropriate. Hence, I will continue to use it for the time being. Still, like any piece of prose, it is open to interpretation. Let me claim the author's right to a first sortie.
At first blush one might think that I'm advocating a life lived in the perennial present, like those poor souls with anterograde amnesia who cannot form new memories, so they start each day with no past upon which to base a mindful present pointing to the unpredictable future. No, that's not it. Another possible misread might be that I assume we are free to ignore the future ramifications of our current actions — a sort of "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" approach to life. Nope. Finally, one could wrongly assume that because I acknowledge it cannot be undone, we should simply forget the past and, temporal blinders firmly in place, plod stoically into tomorrow free to repeat the missteps of our youth. Yet again, wrongo!
With these straw men neatly constructed, allow me to hasten their demise and tell you what I really meant. The imperious arrow of time declares that our life is a hopeful history. It is a history because we are defined, in the end, by what we have accomplished, not by what we promise. It is a hopeful history in that we desire it to be a continuing series, one that gets renewed for next season. Certainly we realize that a pratfall down the stairs or a texting-obsessed teen in their parent's monster SUV could declare, "That's All Folks," at any moment. Still, let's stay with the "hopeful history," which like any history, is cast in the past.
When I say, "What we have done in the past cannot be undone," I am not, as I have already said, advocating life in a perennial present with the past forgotten and ignored. Rather, I am advising us — and when I say “us," I mean me — to see the past not as an unalterable template for our life, but rather as a guide to the future. And it is a guide, strangely, the lessons of which are taught most clearly by our regrets.
Let me clarify. If you have a past totally free of regrets, I feel sorry for you. Our regrets often stem from those times when we gave into our vices. But keep in mind that our vices tend to be our virtues run a bit amok. The excesses of our youth often, like wine and philosophy, temper with age, taking on a depth and richness that nonetheless mirrors that youthful exuberance. Upon reflection, our regrets are then opportunities to fine-tune our virtues. Regrets teach us the location of the line that marks the point where virtue becomes vice. If you have no regrets, you have yet to learn the location of that line, and some painful stumbles lie ahead.
Let me compress one of my favorite Mark Twain stories, which seems somehow apropos, though I’m not exactly sure how:
Twain is strolling on the veranda of a pleasant hotel, when he encounters a matronly lady, obviously distressed.
Twain: It is such a lovely evening, m’am. What can be troubling you?
Lady: I just visited my doctor, and he says I have less than a year to live!
Twain: I can be of help! First, you must give up cigars.
Lady: I have never smoked a cigar in my life!
Twain: Then you must give up whiskey.
Lady: Alcohol has never passed my lips!
Twain: Ah, now I see the problem,
Twain: You have neglected your habits.
Which somehow leads me to this seemingly contradictory bit of advice: let go of your regrets. And this is the "What we have done in the past cannot be undone" piece. I am not saying to forget the lessons of your regrets, but neither should you cling to them, mooning over a dusty photo album of lost loves or missed opportunities. Let them go. Move past those moments, and forgive the complicit individuals who accompanied you across the line that separates virtue and vice. No amount of regret can uncross of the line, nor can any amount of midnight anguish clarify who pushed whom. Such thrashing defines the retarding and destructive past you must leave behind. It cannot be changed. Step away from that past.
But it is the insightful lessons of the past that should lead us to peaceful and mindful behavior in the all-important present. There is an old saying — which I have seen attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Einstein — that stupidity is when you keep doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results. True, but the aphorism plays on two levels. The more obvious interpretation is that we should change our strategy. Seek the desired result with new behavior. Again, true. However, it seems to me that we might also want to consider shifting our objective. Think about it. I might practice the piano for years and years with the same teacher without success. The solution might not be to change teachers but rather to try the clarinet or golf.
And that takes us to the slippery relationship between the vital present and the future. It's hopeful, like the past, but uniquely uncertain. Hidden in the call to live each moment in the present is the heady lure of hedonism. After all, we could reason that the present quickly becomes the past and is best forgotten, while the future is uncertain, and this opportunity might never again present itself.
I suppose it comes down to planning your regrets — or at least realizing that your present pleasantries, when past, could in the future become regrets. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t resist writing that sentence. It just felt good, seems accurate and will do no one harm. And maybe, that's how we should see the present.
We need to consider the difference between that which makes you feel good and that which makes you a more harmonic person. Our path to that harmonic self will be unique. As I “'peat and repeat,” the only chord you can tune is your own, which, surprising none of you, brings me back to my mantra — foster harmony, enable beauty, distill complexity and oppose harm.
If at the end of each day I can say I hit one or more of those notes, then it has been a worthy time in the present. The future can look after itself, and the past can remain in the rearview mirror.