Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Past, Present, and Future

I finished reading A Christmas Carol on Christmas Day, sitting in the cozy spot on my in-law's couch during the afternoon lull when all the hubbub of the morning had died down. I've confessed before that I've never read the whole book before, but I'd seen every movie production multiple times and knew the story backwards and forwards. The movies draw so many lines directly from the book that everything felt familiar and worn (in a good way) while reading the book.

Until I got to the end, and was hit with a line I'd never heard used in any of my favorite movie productions (or, if it is used, never in a way I'd paid attention to before). It comes just as Scrooge is pleading with the mysterious and silent Ghost of Christmas Future, right after he's seen his own name on the grave, when he says:

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me."

I think this line struck me so hard because, first, it sheds some light on an interpretation of the purpose of the story I hadn't considered before, but second, because no one makes statements like this these days.

I mean, people talk all the time about living in the Present. That seems to be the buzzword on everyone's lips, the New Year's message I've seen all over social media, the mantra of everyone from spiritual yogis to self-help experts to parents.

Live in the moment!

Be present!

All you have is now!

You don't hear anyone say "Live in the past!" In fact, most discourse seems to actively discourage that idea. You're more likely to hear messages of "Don't live in the past!" or "Let the past go!"

And while you do hear people telling you to plan for the future, the general advice also seems to be against living there. "Don't dream away your life" the message seems to go. "Don't spend your life waiting for that someday, live your life now!"

So I was terribly struck by Scrooge's promise, to live in not just the present, but also the past and the future. What is the good of living in all three? What does it mean to live in the past and future in positive ways? I've been thinking about this for the past week, and thought now might be a good time and place to work through my cogitations on the subject.

Living in the Past

I think, in some cases, you do need to let the past go. You need to forgive yourself and others for past hurts and move on. You need to stop bringing up people's past failings. You need to, in a manner of speaking, bury your dead, get over it, and move on.

But that's just for the negative stuff.

What about the positive stuff in your past? The happy times? The good memories?

I think even there sometimes we have the message that it's best not to dwell in the "glory days" if it just makes present hardships or circumstances feel pale in comparison.

But I do think there can be harm in forgetting too much, or in letting the past go without working through how much the past shapes our present. When it comes to past hurt, past trauma, past negativity, sometimes the most healthy thing to do is face it head on, own it, talk about it, bring it up. Not just bury it.

And also, I think there is harm in forgetting the good things, forgetting the happiness. I can't remember exactly where I read this, but I remember reading about a marriage study where the researchers determined that couple's who's marriages were on the rocks tended to rewrite their memories of their past relationship. Couples who were headed to divorce tended to look back and remember only the negative things-- the arguments, the rain on the wedding day, the miserable honeymoon with the missed flights and lost luggage-- until they are left wondering why they even got together in the first place when it was all just miserableness and loneliness from the beginning. They've completely forgotten all the positive and romantic things that brought them together, the good moments of laughter, how happy the wedding had been before the rain, how the airline had gifted them a free flight voucher for the lost luggage, all the happy moments in between.

See, it's all about what you choose to focus on in the past.

And focusing on the good, the positive, the happy moments, really can make your present self happier.

I love playing the game "Remember when" with my husband. We have all of our favorite dating stories: like our first Valentine's day together, or the first time we met each other's families, or all the places on campus we used to share secret kisses. Oh, and we both firmly agree that our wedding day and honeymoon were completely magical (although I'm sure if I thought hard enough, I could come up with negative things from those days... but why would I want to think about the negative things?). And telling these stories and dwelling in these memories only helps strengthen our relationship now. It keeps us grounded in our foundation, reinforces why we fell in love, reminds us that what we have now is so, so wonderful.

So yes, I agree that living in the past can be good. For Scrooge, it helped him deal with his childhood of emotional neglect, and remember that he once felt love and joy and happiness. Dealing with the painful parts and remembering the good parts are all part of living in a healthy past

Living in the Present

I feel like we hear so much about the benefits of living in the present these days that I don't need to say much about it. But of course I will, because there's a reason we are obsessively focused on living in the present: it's important and it's hard.

Surprisingly hard.

It's hard to enjoy life, right now, as it is, without worrying about the future or the never-ending to-do list or dwelling (unhealthily) on past mistakes or negative emotions. Many of us seem to spend a lot of energy escaping our presents, numbing our emotions, trying not to feel or think or deal with life as it is right now. Most of us wish something could be different, the old "I'll be happy when..."

But we only have now. We can't change the past, and the future only comes to us in a never-ending series of nows. Now and now and now.

Dreams you want to fulfill? Now is all you have

To-dos you want to do? Maybe you should do them now.

Children who are growing up too quickly? All they know is now, so be there with them. Be in the now, this moment, the laughs and the tickles and the stories and building blocks and the rolling around on the floor. Now is the time for hugs and I Love Yous. Now is the time for simply enjoying your children as they are, right now.

Live in the Present.

Live in the Future

There is certainly an unhealthy way to live in the future. When you're life is consumed with anxiety about all the potential problems or hurts or things that could go wrong, you can become paralyzed with fear for a future that hasn't even happened (and most likely won't). Or there is of course the opposite option, dreaming of your glorious future, the one where you have all the money and have finally lost all the weight and fixed all your problems and everything is better and you will finally be happy in that future.

Both of those are bad ways to live in the future.

But you simply cannot live without at least considering and planning for your future. I can't remember where I read about this either (some study or other in one of those social science motivation books I keep reading), but we tend to think of our present selves and our future selves as two very different people, and, frustratingly, we tend to treat our present selves with a lot more kindness and indulgence because, well, we "are" our present selves.

That future self? Well, that's a different person entirely. That future self is great. That future self will have everything under control. That future self will have all the good habits. That future self will have the time, the energy, the whatever to deal with problems, so we'll just let that future self take care of them. And because that future self is so virtuous, we'll just let this present self catch a break, indulge in one more treat, ignore that problem, stay up too late, etc. We are so much kinder to our present selves than our future selves.

But I've learned that in demanding a little sacrifice from my present self in favor of my future self can really go a looooong way to increasing my overall happiness, because of course, eventually that future self becomes the present self.

My biggest victory is meal planning. I hate meal planning. I hate figuring out what to make for dinner every night all at once, making the list of ingredients, doing the grocery shopping. It's an unpleasant task that asks for a lot from my present self once a week. But do you know what I love? Automatically knowing what I'm going to make for dinner every day, so I never have that 5 o'clock panic. Knowing that all the ingredients are there, ready to go. Not having to think about it every day except the day I meal plan for the week. It's one hour of pain that allows for a smooth and calm week. It's a moment where my present self sacrifices for my future self in a way that maximizes life value.

If done right and in balance, living in and for the future can make you happier, because eventually the future will become the present.

The Spirits of All Three

But of course, the real lesson from this book is not how to live in all three, but that we must live in ALL THREE. We can talk all we want about living in the here and now, focusing only on the present, but the present eventually becomes the past and the future eventually becomes the present. We must learn how to live and navigate in all three, for they are not separate. The past affects us, the present affects us, and the past and present affect our future. As Scrooge learned, the hard way, true happiness comes when we hold the perspective of all three tenses in our hearts at once.

Remember the goodness of your past

Live in your present to create good memories for the past.

Live in your present to prepare the way for your future self.

Live in the Past, Present, and Future.


  1. Great food for thought! My biggest weakness is definitely living in the future--it's the root of all my anxiety, and I can definitely use it as an escape route, too. I also tend to not think about the past very much, because I don't want to dwell on sad things. But I like the positive points you made about taking the time to actively (and regularly) reflect on both in positive ways--it's definitely something I need to work on. Interesting post!

    1. Thanks Torrie! I found it pretty interesting to think about myself (and I'm sure there's more I could've talked about). Thanks for finding my musings interesting!

  2. There's a reason why "remember" is one of the most important words in the scriptures, and why family history and personal stories give kids a sense of identity and resiliency. And I still clearly remember the day when I realized that today is part of my eternity, so the things I do and say today affect my future trajectory. Good thoughts!
    P.S. Have you seen "The Man Who Invented Christmas" about Dickens writing A Christmas Carol? I really enjoyed it (although probably not fully historical accurate!)

    1. No, I haven't seen it... maybe next year! It sounds good!