ONE OF THE SUREST SIGNS of dysfunction in modern life is our difficulty in staying present. It is a response, I suspect, to feeling too overwhelmed to deal with the many contradictions of the world we live in, or to confront the full implications of our actions. So we spend much of our time trying to be elsewhere — anywhere but the here and now. Naturally, our anxieties have been deftly disguised and exploited by the people who are paid handsomely to get us to buy things. They fill our heads with the lame but dazzling idea that a purchase could solve our problems (or at least make them go away), instead of adding to our seemingly insurmountable dilemmas.
I’m not talking about the usual suspects when it comes to escape, such as alcohol or drugs, or fantasy. I don’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with being optimistic about the future, or planning for it. I refer to a relentless, daily attitude that has us making unconscious decisions to abandon the moment in the naïve hope that something better awaits that doesn’t require our acknowledgement or participation. We sacrifice intensity for the illusion of safety, and then seek artificial, vicarious stimulation through the lives of more intrepid or imaginative others.
EVEN FOR THE MANY PEOPLE who enjoy their jobs, the zeitgeist is about getting away — to the end of the workday, to the weekend, to a vacation. Work is something we must grind through, rather than savor, since so much of it seems irrelevant, our individual contributions insignificant. Sadly, many of the material perks of modern living depend on abstract, repetitive tasks, or worse, simply busy work. Who wants to stay in such a place?
Finding meaning in work has become increasingly difficult in today’s society, and it has soured our attitude toward labor in general. Our troubled relationship with work extends to the home. We are irritated by the chores required to maintain our lifestyles, and spend copious time and money trying to shorten or eliminate them, so that we can be elsewhere. In the process, we lock ourselves in to a mind-numbing cycle: work to afford the energy that in theory lengthens the spaces between work, leaving us forever half a step behind the real time of our lives. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Money often costs too much.”
Homeowners organize their lives around their property, spending thousands of dollars every month to pay for and maintain them. Then we spend additional time and money complaining about or simply avoiding the spaces we inhabit. Nature, with its messy life cycles, is one culprit, and we turn our gas-powered machines full force on leaves and grass and “weeds” in our desire to control and dominate it. But even tending our polished wooden floors and treasured bookcases is seen as time when we really should be doing something else.
It can reach absurd levels. We work at jobs in which we do not feel valued, purchase services and material goods to entertain us and maintain our standard of living, and then spend more money to rectify the damage we have wrought by ignoring our basic needs. Our riding lawn mowers marginally buy us time (if we exclude its purchase price and operating costs), but waste fuel and undermine our senses, and leave us physically out of shape in the process. So we purchase a membership to an air-conditioned gym miles away from where we live, then watch with helpless despair as CNN reports on rising gas prices or the latest incidence of violent climate change. Or else we resign ourselves to being physically out of shape.
The car is a perfect symbol for our unrest: it is all about taking us elsewhere. Even with our many gadgets — air conditioners (more gas), GPS devices, music — the car is not a destination, but a way to take us somewhere else, in some future time. We rail against traffic delays and inconsiderate drivers, because they slow us down from getting to the next place, and we invest heavily for the privilege, in car payments, insurance, gasoline, and maintenance. For a century now, we Americans have been locked in to this environmentally insensitive way to run our lives, and I am no exception. Modern-day travel is a miraculous thing, but that shouldn’t make us blind to its true costs, including time spent idly behind the wheel.
THIS DESIRE TO ESCAPE from reality is not just about the future, either. Entire industries have been built around our willingness to experience our lives retrospectively. We take photographs and videos to “capture” important moments that all too often are diluted by the very act of taking them, and then attempt to relive those moments, as though time can be stopped or better appreciated after the fact, on film. These visual technologies are brilliant inventions, fabulous art forms in their own right but also increasingly egalitarian, enjoyed by all, even from our telephones. But photographs, while a great way to share and recall important people and moments, are derivative of experience, not the real thing.
There are certain virtues in multitasking, but greater rewards, perhaps, in being able to accommodate experiences singly, in a focused way, in real time, observing details and sensations that necessarily are sacrificed when we flood our brains with stimulus from many directions. The cell phone call on the beach or while we are visiting with a friend puts us in greater touch with the world in one way, but at a cost of diminishing our appreciation of the present. As Michael Pollan has written, a meal eaten while driving in a car is not really a meal.
We fear our insignificance, yet by adopting a strategy of abandoning the moment, we confirm it. None of us can solve the world’s problems singlehandedly, obviously, and some of humans’ gravest mistakes over time can seem intractable. But there are still things we can do to take greater control of our lives, and how we spend our time, if we stop practicing avoidance. At the very least, being fully present to our experiences can bring heightened awareness and greater sense of meaning to our actions.
We can do a better job learning to be uncomfortable, for one thing. It’s more real that way. We can stop blaming everyone except ourselves for the messes we find ourselves in. Unless and until we are willing to make substantial changes in our lifestyles and do a better job resisting the sirens of consumerism, we are part of the problem.
If we can’t find more meaningful work, we can at least restructure our lives away from the job to synchronize our experiences with our awareness. We can relax or abandon parts of our culturally determined (read corporate) aesthetic and recreate our living spaces in our own images, guided by common sense and self-interest. It may not seem like much, but it is something — certainly more satisfying than the insecurity and despair lurking beneath our escapism.
The current heat wave is the latest example of our determination to dodge the moment. When we are hot, we want to be cold; when we are cold, we want to be hot. But when we artificially condition the air around us and go to great lengths to avoid spending time outdoors, how can we seriously suggest that we appreciate the implications of climate change? For most of us, it is just another, higher electric bill that we pay unthinking, in cyberspace.
It is a lot harder living in the heat, but it is enlightening. It is real, and in the long run we don’t help ourselves by avoiding it. The less time we spend enduring the elements, the harder it becomes, a self-fulfilling prophecy. We hardly notice; we are in denial, headed for some other place, and some other time.