If you start to open yourself up to the variety of thinking that gets filed in bookstores under headings such as “New Age” or “Wellness” or “Spirituality,” you’ll find a veritable avalanche of advice counseling you to “live in the present.” And this isn’t bad advice, either. It’s a great truth that we can’t actually live in the past or in the future, but we seem to try to do so anyway, so it’s helpful to be reminded of the great importance of The Now. There’s a critical difference in this context, though, between those two time zones in which we can’t actually dwell: the aforementioned past, on the one hand, and the aforementioned future, on the other…
The future is this tremendous unknown: our scientists can extrapolate forward about it for us, we can daydream about it ourselves, our science-fiction writers can daydream about it even better and in more lush detail for us…but none of us knows for sure…none of us has ever actually been there.
But the past on the other hand, we’ve seen for ourselves with our own eyes, right? We’ve traveled through that country, and while we don’t seem to be allowed back — not in the flesh — we have our memories and our memorabilia to remind us of it…don’t we…?
Well…maybe not. If we want to get all Philip K. Dick about it, what if we imagine some technology (or non-technological alternative) that allows for things like memory tampering…? What if it could be possible to not only wipe out real memories that had been established through experience, but to also implant false memories…recollections of things that never actually happened? Various movies have touched on this premise to great effect, and I can immediately think of a couple based on Dick’s works alone that did so (Blade Runner and Total Recall both made use of this concept to some degree). So, to put it bluntly, what if we, and this universe we live in, had been created an instant before you began reading this, in our/its entirety, including your own memories of things that would predate this moment, but which never actually happened? What if your mysterious Creator, for unfathomable reasons of Her/His/Its own, wanted to set things up this way, and had enough knowledge and power to carry off the ruse such that to you (and/or me, and/or everyone else) it was utterly convincing, and thoroughly, absolutely impenetrable?
In other words, as far as we know — in theory — there might not even be a “past.” No?
Of course, even if the universe did just begin a few microseconds ago, and we’d been fooled into believing otherwise, as we move forward, the present will indeed become an actual, lived-through past, and one that will continue to accumulate…unless some sort of cosmic reset button gets pressed regularly, and the process of rebooting the universe into being, populated by natives with heads full of implanted false memories, is an ongoing one, in which case, the past could conceivably remain as untouched and untouchable as the future, if not more so.
I guess what I’m getting at here is the idea that maybe we have even more reason to follow those New Age-y exhortations to “Live in the Now!” than may have been obvious at first blush. The future seems unattainable to us, aside from trudging toward it one small moment at a time, and the past might conceivably be just as much akin to a mirage (for the record, I don’t believe our pasts are false memories implanted by some great, unseen agency, but I concede that if that were in fact the case, we’d never know it…). Trying too hard to live only for some future that we may never see can easily rob you of vast amounts of joy to be found in the present, and similarly, dwelling too much on a past that probably happened but in theory maybe even didn’t…can be just as much an obstacle to present-day happiness. Ideally, you’d strike a good balance — enjoying fond memories plus planning in reasonable amounts for the future are not unwise practices — but I suppose I’m just adding my voice to the chorus that croons on about how valuing the past and the future over the present can, and probably will, diminish your potential fulfillment, and especially the longer you make it an ongoing practice. “Here And Now” may indeed trump “There And Then” when it comes to selecting a location in which to achieve happiness and satisfaction…