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In the Here and Now
by Phillip Lopate
The argument of both the hedonist and the guru is that if we were but to open ourselves to the richness of the moment, to concentrate on the feast before us, we would be filled with bliss. I have lived in the present from time to time, and I can tell you that it is much over-rated. Occasionally, as a holiday from stroking one’s memories or brooding about future worries, I grant you, it can be a nice change of pace. But to “be here now” hour after hour would never work. I don’t even approve of stories written in the present tense. As for poets who never use a past participle, they deserve the eternity they are striving for.
Besides, the present has a way of intruding whether you like it or not; why should I go out of my way to meet it? Let it splash on me from time to time, like a car going through a puddle, and I, on the sidewalk of my solitude, will salute it grimly like any other modern inconvenience.
If I attend a concert, obviously not to listen to the music but to find a brief breathing space in which to meditate on the past and future, I realize that there may be moments when the music invades my ears and I am forced to pay attention to it, note after note. I believe I take such intrusions gracefully. The present is not always an unwelcome guest, so long as it doesn’t stay too long and cut into our time for remembering.
Even for survival, it’s not necessary to focus one’s full attention on the present. The instincts of a pedestrian crossing the street in a reverie will usually suffice. Alertness is all right as long as it is not treated as a promissory note on happiness. Anyone who recommends attention to the moment as a prescription for grateful wonder is only telling half the truth. To be happy one must pay attention, but to be unhappy one must also have paid attention.
Attention, at best, is a form of prayer. Conversely, as Simone Weil said, prayer is a way of focusing attention. All religions recognize this when they ask their worshipers to repeat the name of their God, a devotional practice which draws the practitioner into a trance-like awareness of the present, and the objects around oneself. With a part of the soul, one praises God, and with the other part, one expresses a hunger, a dissatisfaction, a desire for more spiritual contact. Praise must never stray too far from longing, that longing which takes us implicitly beyond the present.
I was about to say that the very act of attention implies longing, but this is not necessarily true. Attention is not always infused with desire; it can settle on us most placidly once desire has been momentarily satisfied, like after the sex act. There are also periods following over-work when the exhausted slave-body is freed and the eyes dilate to register with awe the lights of the city; one is too tired to desire anything else.
Such moments are rare. They form the basis for a poetic appreciation of the beauty of the world. However, there seems no reliable way to invoke or prolong them. The rest of the time, when we are not being edgy or impatient, we are often simply disappointed, which amounts to a confession that the present is not good enough. People often try to hide their disappointment—just as Berryman’s mother told him not to let people see that he was bored, because it suggested that he had no “inner resources.” But there is something to be said for disappointment. This least respected form of suffering, downgraded as a kind of petulance, at least accurately measures the distance between hope and reality. And it has its own peculiar satisfactions: why else do we return years later to places where we had been happy, if not to savor the bittersweet pleasure of disappointment.
Moreover, disappointment is the other side of a strong, predictive feeling for beauty or appropriate civility or decency. Only those with a sense of order and harmony can be disappointed.
We are told that to be disappointed is immature, in that it presupposes having unrealistic expectations, whereas the wise man meets each moment head-on without preconceptions, with freshness and detachment, grateful for anything it offers. However, this pernicious teaching ignores everything we know of the world. If we continue to expect what turns out to be not forthcoming, it is not because we are unworldly in our expectations, but because our very worldliness has taught us to demand of an unjust world that it behave a little more fairly. The least we can do, for instance, is to register the expectation that people in a stronger position to be kind and not cruel to those in a weaker, knowing all the while that we will probably be disappointed.
The truth is, wisdom is embittering. The task of the wise person cannot be to pretend with false naiveté that every moment is new and unprecedented but to bear the burden of bitterness that experience forces on us with as much uncomplaining dignity as strength will allow. Beyond that, all we can ask of ourselves is that the bitterness not cancel out our capacity to still be surprised.
This essay originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog. [Free Download Here]