Which moment should we seize?

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By Craig Nudelman

When I finished the third instalment of the Harry Potter series, The Prisoner of Azkaban (which I read in the darkened auditorium during my sister’s ballet Eisteddfod) I immediately looked forward to the next instalment which was due to come out a whole year later.

When the day fnally arrived, I went to Exclusive Books in Rosebank Mall and bought The Goblet of Fire. And the same process occurred for the following three novels. I’ve always wondered; why is it that once we finish something, we immediately look forward to the next big thing? Why can we not just stop and appreciate what we have just completed? I guess this relates to the most clichéd phrases of all — ‘living in the moment’. Everything points to why we should, doesn’t it? From movie mantras (‘Carpe Diem’) to t-shirt slogans, from mindfulness to minimalism: to ‘live in the moment’ is almost prescribed by society. Hundreds of memes also focus on this; one of my favourites (with tongue firmly in cheek) is ‘To do list: Live in the Moment’… But can we ever? Can we leave out the hustle and bustle of the day and just appreciate what we have?

As a cisgender male (a relatively new term denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex) I feel that I have to provide for my family, which means I have to bring home the bacon… Sorry, I mean macon. As a teacher, I always need to plan my lessons and ensure that my students pass their tests and exams. My wife and I also have to try to plan what to do with Jessica when the weekend arrives. Sometimes I feel like my life is dictated with deadlines and to-do lists, which can cause stress and sometimes paralysing anxiety.

But is this sort of projecting forward always a bad thing? Stress is a characteristic of human nature. Martin E. P. Seligman and John Tierney, in an opinion piece in the New York Times, write about our most important quality that differentiates us from animals — our ability to contemplate the future. This quality is key to how we learn and thrive. They state that “(b)ehavior, memory and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection. We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected.” Further, the ability to imagine and confront change is the way we construct a more advanced tomorrow. As social animals, humans have the ability to anticipate what our descendants will do in the distant future. Now, I’m not sure if the farmer living in 12th-century Poland would have imagined the way in which we farm today, but as we progress throughout the centuries we have an idea, a thought, of how we could develop as individuals and as a people. Another thing to consider is that living in the present could mean we forget about the past. I’ve often spoken about remembrance — that we should be cognisant of how we got to where we are today and learn from it. It is important to try to work on our mistakes and become better people. Of course, there can be times when this focus on the past is dangerous. For example, sometimes we tend to slip so deeply into how bad things were that we cannot escape the past.But I still believe it is important to focus on how we got to where we are.

I’ve been thinking about how this relates to Judaism, with the month of Elul coming up in the build-up to Rosh Hashanah. Notwithstanding the requirement that we celebrate and honour our past through festivals and traditions, as Jews we are also required to live in the moment. When we eat, drink, wash our hands, travel, or even see a rainbow, we say a bracha to show how grateful we are for that thing we have just done or seen or heard. When we pray during one of the services or read from the Torah we think about the now.

In the journal Science Matthew Killingsworth and David Gilbert found that happiness is in the now. They wrote that, “A human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” This emphasises the benefits to be reaped from full and real focus.
Nevertheless, I must admit that I do love my wandering mind. During the day, sometimes compulsively, I pick at my phone to look things up. I try to find out how things work and operate; The name of the 2018 FIFA World Cup font (Dusha), why Cecil B. DeMille directed The Ten Commandments, and how I can make that one student in the back of the class ask more questions. Wandering and day-dreaming are how I conjure up new ideas. So, while we need to live in the moment, we should give ourselves permission to wander/wonder every now and then.

By letting ourselves drift off, we can achieve the unthinkable.

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