Gone in the instant of becoming

IMG_0896While doing some reading on the topic of time yesterday, I came across a quote from William James:

“Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”

It is true that all moments are fleeting. As we think about time, there is forever this tension between trying to be in the moment, and recognizing that “now” is practically non-existent. By the time it can be thought of, it has already faded into the past.

There is an anticipating self, an experiencing self, and a remembering self. The good life requires giving proper attention to all three. In general, while we talk about how hard it is to be in the moment, I think it is actually easiest to over-indulge the experiencing self. We make decisions based on current feelings and energy levels. Certain aspects of the anticipating and remembering selves can be likewise given too much thought: dread of an upcoming meeting, rehashing an argument. What is harder is to make decisions in the present that will make the anticipating and remembering selves happier. Doing this requires planning wonderful things in the future to look forward to (while knowing that not all will be perfect), and rather than asking what we feel like doing now, ask what the remembering self will look back fondly on having done.

I have been thinking of this tension in planning my summer. I know my second son’s “Mommy Day” will involve roller coasters, and I’m not particularly into that idea, but I scouted out the park to figure out which ones I can deal with, and watched the point-of-view videos to see what the rides would entail, so I can actually somewhat look forward to them. I also know that the rides themselves will take about 2 minutes each, and I can deal with pretty much anything for 2 minutes. And then — this is key — my remembering self will be happy that I gave my son this experience. My anticipating self can already picture his little gap-toothed grin.

We are also figuring out an end-of-August vacation. A little over two years ago, we took the crew to the Netherlands during tulip time in April. This was an item on my bucket list. As my husband and I were talking about potential locations last night, he reminded me of how much of that trip was tough. The kids were jet-lagged (though that doesn’t seem worse than the baby constantly waking up in the middle of the night now). They had trouble with art museums and foreign food. Even the day we went to an amusement park was cold and rainy. That is true, but my remembering self thinks of little of that now. Instead, I see seas of tulips, bright in the spring sunshine. I remember biking in a park, I remember seeing the little town my grandfather left years before. I remember being up in the middle of the night, but my memory is of writing the first draft of I Know How She Does It in my jet-lagged state.

It is hard to be perfectly happy in the moment, but my memory of that trip is happy. My remembering self is glad we went. My anticipating self learns to trust that there will be more happy memories to come — possibly things I cannot currently fathom. This is the stuff of hope. Unlike the present, it can be perpetual. It is not gone in the instant of becoming.

9 thoughts on “Gone in the instant of becoming

  1. Nice piece! I like the concept of the “remembering self” as a tool to push yourself to do things that feel difficult in the present, such as running a marathon or reading a difficult novel, but that you will feel good about afterwards.

    1. @RR – thanks! Running a half marathon in the heat this past weekend was tough, but I’m glad I finished it – my remembering self is happy with it. Of course, I’m not exactly rushing to sign up for an Ironman or anything…

  2. That’s a great quote from James, and an important point about perspective.

    Maybe it’s personal but my remembering self WILL remember the unpleasantness as part of the experience (and I’m not a particularly negative person). What I remember from a trip to Quebec, which is a lovely city I’d like to return to under different circumstances, is that I had suffered a recent head trauma, had a baby who woke every 2 hrs to nurse, and couldn’t really even enjoy the walking, with schlepping strollers up and down. Sure, there was a family boat ride that supplied some nice pictures but was that worth the aggravation? Not really. I’d have to do a lot of mental reframing to come up with a good takeaway narrative of that trip…

    That said, I do try to pause to take away the good even in the midst of the generally unpleasant, talk about daily good things with my kids, etc. I suppose that’s an attempt to align the experiencing and remembering selves for the good.

    1. @gwinne- there is certainly a balance to be sought, and hopefully to be found. Sometimes things are just going to be so awful to the experiencing self that it will not be worth it. I can deal with 2 minutes of going fast up and down and backwards or whatever, but I’m not about to fly 16 hours to Asia with the toddler right now. I also think physical pain (e.g. your head trauma) can color things in such ways that it will long be embedded in the memory.

  3. I love the framework of the “anticipating and remembering selves.” I try to enhance experiences this way, but have never heard it put it that way before.

    An example of anticipating, I plan dates with my husband and text him days ahead of time with details to build excitement.

    For remembering, I make my nieces and nephews albums of the “cousin camps” I host so that they can reminisce.

  4. Count me in as one who enjoyed this post/finds its perspective helpful. I’ve had any number of experiences where I tell myself that, though not fun in the happening, they’ll be great in the retelling (I wasn’t actually even present when it happened, but the time one of my stepkids sank our bass boat by failing to install the plug back in the boat before unloading it from the trailer is one such example. Doh!).

    1. @Alexicographer – the funny part about that is that at some point you may start remembering that you *were* there. The brain is funny that way. Stories become reality.

  5. I read this last week, but came back to re-read it! Husband is trying to convince me that a trip to Europe with a 2 and 5yo would be fun. I remember last year’s long 3 weeks in London as being fun, but really tiring…lots of walks around the block at 5am with a baby who never adjusted to the time.

    The memories have always been worth traveling with kids, but I do have to be selective in which parts I remember 😉

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