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Returning to the Present and Living With Intention
How we alienate ourselves from the present and, thus, from our ability to create joy and meaning in our lives.
I have had this pet peeve, of sorts, for a really long time - an odd one that I have struggled to articulate. I really, really dislike it when people insinuate or assume that the living conditions for most humans across ancient history were quite poor, particularly compared to today.
I have often found myself bristle when people refer to the dark and miserable ages of “peasant” life. Here, I do not mean “peasant” as in any specific historical group - but, more so, our shared cultural understanding of the term as representing a poor farmer leading a difficult and miserable life.
Now, this is not intended to be an essay about a desire to glamorize and return to pre-industrial times - but, I think that we have largely dismissed the realities of pre-industrial people, including their joys and motivations, as somehow “lesser” than our own, and I think we do so to our own detriment.
It is in the nature of our capitalistic world that “better” is a condition of the future - that innovation and discovery will lead us into a more beautiful and prosperous world. This perceived future-heaven is directly linked to a past-hell. Everything “bad” is from past-hell and everything good lies in future-heaven.
We see this in our political discourse. When hatred and “evil” arise in our political world, we think of ourselves as “going back in time” in that we are regressing to our past-hell realities.
This idea is expressed in the wisdom that we ought to “learn the lessons of the past”. Yet, strangely, the “lessons of the past” are almost always grounded in what was wrong with the past and how we shouldn’t repeat it - as opposed to a balanced approach of witnessing the “good” and the “bad” and learning from each.
Our capitalistic tendency to aspire towards a future-heaven is also central to many of the political struggles we have today. For example, many people (particularly in conservative and right-wing circles), the past looks better than the future. This has given rise to an oppositional political attitude of future-hell/past-heaven.
Admittedly, I am less interested in discussing this reactionary group (i.e., the future-hell/past-heaven conservatives) in this essay - for, I view many of the extreme right-wing elements in our society as being a consequence of the foundations of capitalism. Capitalism, in focusing on a future-heaven, is a culture killer. Anyone who identifies with a cultural past will feel threatened by the looming presence of capitalist empire - as misguided as it is, future-hell/past-heaven is a rather reasonable reaction to future-heaven/past-hell.
In truth, no matter what eon of humanity we were born into, life has been defined by struggles and joy, hardships and celebrations, love and hate, beauty and despair. Clearly, there are technological advancements today that make our lives far safer and more comfortable than our ancestors - but, does that mean our lives our simply better, richer, and more wonderful in all regards? No, that doesn’t seem likely.
While writing this, I imagined the scene in the movie Matilda in which her family is watching TV and eating their TV-dinners and they are just absolutely absorbed into the screen, prone to primal reactions if anything tries to distract them from their programming. Is there anything more American than a family absorbed in their screens, rarely (if ever) communicating with each other, living in physical proximity and emotional isolation from on another?
Though our phones and computers (future-heaven!) have largely usurped the role of television in our lives, this reality of emotional and spiritual isolation remain. We are an anxious and depressed people, we are disconnected from one another with the exception of the thin threads of social media - if we are fortunate, we have found something richer, with a stronger binding agent holding us in community. But, as a society and as a people, we are unhappy. Even when we have people we love and that love us, we often still find that we are alone and it ails us.
In truth, we are always in the present. The past is always departing and the future is always arriving - yet, our life is always lived and experienced in the present. Happiness does not lie in some future-heaven or past-heaven and suffering does not await us in some past-hell or future-hell. They are just ways of describing the experiences of the present.
As anyone who loves planning vacations knows, planning an experience is difficult work. A fun experience does not simply manifest itself - no, there is a lot of work and planning that goes into cultivating happiness. It is an artform and all art is made in the present - one cannot paint or sing or dance in the future, one can only prepare for it until it is present.
In other words, in order to create a truly positive experience or a work of art, we must use our intention in the present to make this experience manifest in some future-present. Intention is a way of describing our present will to dictate the future before us.
When we live in the mindsets of future-heaven/past-hell or future-hell/past-heaven, we become disconnected from our own agency, we lose our ability to act in the present with intention. For, our current sorrows will either be alleviated by the future (i.e., future-heaven) or it is the fault of someone erasing the past (i.e., past-heaven).
When we do not live in the present, we lose agency over our own present experiences - which, it turns out, all that existing is comprised of! If we do not know joy in the present and do not know an art of creating joy in some future-present, then will we ever actually find joy? Only when we are lucky enough to stumble upon it like a stranger.
When we overlook the present for the past and the future, we miss reality in favor of its shadows. We lose agency over our lives - the present becomes a storm that we must weather by grasping firmly to whatever we can find. Many of us make our homes in shelters from this storm and we stay in our shelters even when the storm has passed - we certainly don’t realize many storms aren’t so bad, like living in fear of a warm, gentle rain.
So, back to my pet peeve - I have often gotten frustrated when people refer to much of human history as far more hellish than our lives today, what I heard people say was, “my life might be rough now, but at least its better than if I were alive in the past”. When we justify the ills in our own life by comparing them to perceived worse ills of others, then we sacrifice our agency to actually make the present worthwhile and enjoyable.
I think the truth is very important - so, if the fundamental reality was that the past was worse in every conceivable way, then I think that would be good to know. Yet, it strikes me that that simply isn’t true. My evidence? Culture and traditions and holidays and art - people have celebrated since time immemorial, people have made art, people have philosophized; people have lived in community!
Across all of human history, people have been fostering joy, fostering celebration, fostering art, fostering beauty, fostering community, and fostering a sense of divinity and purpose on this Earth under this Sun! There has always been suffering and there will always be suffering - but, joy is something that people have had to dedicate their lives too! Joy does arise naturally, but it is our most human gift that we apply our intention for the purpose of experiencing joy in some future-present. It is also true with meaning in this life.
So, why does it bug me when people casually toss out the idea that peasant life was literally that absolute worst? It’s not because I want to go back to some pre-industrial, glamorized version of the world - I like living in a world with many of our modern conveniences.
It bugs me because, as a culture, so many of us alienated from our ability to apply our intention to the purposes of creating joy and meaning in our lives in the present moment. Do we think that people in the past simply didn’t have joy and meaning in their lives? That they woke up miserable, were constantly emaciated, and died only ever knowing suffering?
Being a sustenance farmer is hard and complex work. One must know the Earth and the Sun; one must know the seed and the flower; one must have mastery over the elements; one must be a great master of intention, able to apply their intention to a barren field and make it a rich garden.
Of course there was great suffering. Of course there was disease. Of course there was hunger and war and pain and loss and confusion and struggles and death. Of course! But, many of our ancestors we imagine lived in past-hell were masters of intention!
Our modern conveniences protect many of us from ever needing to master our intentions - to learn how to cultivate a desired future-present. As a result, so very many of us haven’t learned the arts of creating joy and meaning in our lives. And those of us that try anyways run into difficulties and struggles that make such efforts unsustainable. Is it any wonder we live in a society where depression is considered an epidemic?
So, no, I’m not frustrated at people for thinking it would be rough to be a mediaeval peasant. But, when I hear about visions of a past-hell I grow frustrated at the ways we limit our own beliefs about what is possible in the present. Whether we dream of a future-heaven or a past one, we are obscuring our relationship with the present and our agency to cultivate joy and meaning in our own lives.
We can and should look to the past to bear witness to how people applied their intentions towards fostering joy and meaning in their lives so that we may apply those lessons in our own lives. We see these lessons in our history, in our traditions, in our cultures, in our religions, in our art, and in our food! The Earth is decorated in the human endeavor for joy and meaning since time immemorial.
It is the human initiative and intention to create joy and meaning that has made life worthwhile. Many of us are disconnected from this great birthright and we suffer as a result. So, I conclude with this: may we discover that we are always here in the present; may we not let our ideas of the past and the future alienate us from the present; may we come to know ways of experiencing joy and meaning; and may we wield our intentions to bring joy and meaning into our lives in the future-presents we are yet to experience.
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Not to make too much light of our current predicament, but I just imagined a scene in which a mediaeval newspaper ran a story on the mass epidemic of depression amongst the peasant class - which is to say, a Monty Python skit played in my mind and it was darkly and light-heartedly entertaining