Thoughts on health, happiness and sustainability

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One foot in the past and one in the future

The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live, and that is the present moment

It’s powerful because it’s true, and on many occasions this Buddhist saying has helped me to focus on enjoying the moment and get the most of of life.

In many ways it is good advice, but I also believe that we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the past and the future in making the present what it is. Our relationship with the bygone past and yet to come future shapes our experience of every moment.

It is the past that has led us to where we are in this moment, shaped who we are, and provided us with the perspective with which to respond to whatever situations we face in life. It is the past that gives us happy memories to enjoy and painful memories to help us appreciate better times.

The future is nothing more than a figment of our imaginations. It is therefore even easier than the past to discount as a worthless distraction. However, just like the past, our relationship with the future is central to shaping the present. It is our hopes, dreams, and fears of the future that lead us to strive for a better life, in turn influencing our future present. Our lives today are heavily influenced by the attitude that we had to the future earlier in our lives. When we care about the future, we are more likely to make decisions in the present that lead to positive things later in life.

One of the reasons that this care for the past and future is sometimes criticised is that it can lead us to waste the present, dwelling on what has been or what may become while ignoring the important things right in front of us. That is true, but not in itself a good reason to ignore the past and the future.  It is more a reason to care about balance. Focusing too much on the present is also imbalanced and can lead us to make decisions that give us short-term pleasure and satisfaction while damaging our future.  It may sometimes also be difficult to get the most out of the present without taking any reference to the past.

Some of the greatest achievements and happiness in life come from efforts over long periods of time. Those who focus too much on the present run the risk of missing out on the best things in life, but those who neglect the present risk missing out on life entirely. There’s no magic formula, but the perfect life must always maintain harmony between our care for the past, present, and the future.

So a better saying may be:

Value the past that led you to now and enjoy the present as a part of your journey to the future. If you live with one foot in the past and one foot in the future, your head will always be in the present.

We are at a point in history where the future is uncertain in the face of potential environmental collapse, growing populations, and rapid technological change.  It is therefore more critical than ever that we enjoy the present, but that we do so while trying to build a future in which we can survive and thrive. If nothing else, our recent past will teach us what not to do.

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