We’re Doing it Wrong
The pandemic is bringing up a great many flaws in the American experiment, like bodies rising to the surface after a deluge. Our disagreements about the merits of individualism leading to a controversial mask debate… our inadequate safety net leaving families without security… our stunted conversations about race and class and life and death. These have been, and continue to be, written about at length and are worth engaging.
But today I want to talk about a more esoteric flaw in our thinking that is creating a lot of the collective anxiety– our expectation of a future.
Written in 1951, it is shockingly relevant. He talks about how our age is one of anxiety, because all our knowledge thus far has not given us any certainty into the origin or outcome or purpose of life. Religion is no longer a myth we can collectively invest in without skepticism, science has tackled many questions, but does not provide answers on these points. The uncomfortable but apparent reality is that nobody really knows.
In fact, answers are incompatible with the way our lives actually occur. Life is a spontaneous thread of absurd and unpredictable moments. We long for assurance that there will be joy, wealth, and pleasure in our future but the only real guarantee we have is that we will eventually suffer and die. That fact is, admittedly, very unsettling.
But it’s also freeing.
He reminds us that this elusive future has no sensory richness. The aroma of fresh bread, the touch of a lover, and the taste of coffee can only happen in the present. All of our memories and expectations exist in more abstract, mental forms. Still powerful, no doubt, but nowhere near as vibrant as the present moment.
I think it’s a gentle prodding to relax some of our value judgments. It’s hard to be overcome by a blind rage or paralyzed by anxiety if we are settled in this moment, breathing, slackening our clenched jaw, allowing our overactive brains to integrate and embody.
We are ALIVE.
This life is wild; at times faster than we want, at times slower. We need to cultivate an openness to new stimulation and patience with the mundane. Grace and resilience. It can be overwhelming, it can be excruciating, it can be boring. Planning is definitely useful, but when we are fixated on some future event, whether it’s liberation or tyranny or a vacation in Hawaii, we are missing out on what is actually happening right now. We narrow our awareness of opportunities right now. We miss smells and observations and a sense of how the world around us is, in this very moment, astonishing.
Wise old Watts talks about how pleasure doesn’t work without pain, we need the pauses between notes for a song to be enjoyable. An achy body from effort brings vitality. Too much of anything pleasurable becomes pain or sickness. Our receptors for sensation are soft and vulnerable — our eyeballs, our ear drums, our delicate tissues and longings.
Our capacity for pleasure is exactly as great as our capacity for pain and suffering. That is the arrangement we are born into on this earth. Science has showed us that reality is an illusion, relative, nothing is truly solid, and the whole mess is miraculous.
I have started to think about life itself as a sort of medium we get to work with. Through the dimensions of space and time, we get to use near infinite forms of vibration to observe existence, to shape it, to collaborate with others perceiving reality subjectively. We can garden and cook and make jewelry. We can build cities and study dolphins, practice carpentry and play in metal bands. Maybe the future promises nothing, but all things occur spontaneously from this unrealized potential. Make friends with the uncertainty — it is not going away.
A healthy bit of humility about this could really help us navigate the future. The past can teach us a great deal, but nothing was ever exactly as it is now. We are entering a truly global age, and we need to get a handle on this anxiety before we waste our incredible, unlikely opportunity.
Take a moment and pay attention to your breath. Feel your feet. Listen to the sounds bubbling up around you. Come back to this moment, again and again and again. It is the only way to ensure we will be ready when the future we obsess over so desperately finally arrives.