Tuesday, January 02, 2007

We just passed a life marker: did you see it?

This is my first entry of the new year. 2007 has arrived and we have passed out of 2006. We all know that time moves in one direction; the saints and philosophers of the ages have instructed us. In every single moment, we're writing our own immutable history. I cannot change what I did one minute ago; it is impossible. And not just the "climb Mount Everest in a t-shirt" impossible. The inability to alter our own past is fundamentally important to being human. If we don't accept that, we make life more difficult.

I just moved my glass of water from one side of my monitor to the other. It's a simple task, and I can do it without even stopping my composition (assuming I abandon the "home row" and type creatively). On a scale of effort, I may have expended a single calorie to direct my muscles to this action. It was easily and thoughtlessly done.

And no one can now interfere with what I just did. The glass is moved -- it is now history. Unchangable. On January second, I moved the glass. This statement is true. It will remain true to the end of time. It simply "is".

It would be just as easy to move the glass back in this minute. I could "undo" my glass movement and make it so that no one would ever suspect I moved the glass. Armies could come and move the glass for me. They can prevent me from moving the glass again by locking me in a cell. They can announce to everyone that I never moved the glass, burying the truth in a campaign of misinformation. None of this can change the fact that I moved the glass.

As human beings, we're awfully tied up in the notion of trying to change the past. People spend their entire lives trying to bury early scandals. People spend millions of dollars trying to return to previous points in their life when things were good, by using chemicals and surgery and balms and animal extracts. Perhaps the assumption is that if you can return to what you looked like in the past, you can actually return to the past.

In part, this connects to the idea of resolutions. People often make New Year's Resolutions, but they have such a historically low success rate that the concept of making a resolution now comes with an air of self-mockery. I could resolve to exorcise more, but in the months to come, the idea of exorcising because of a past statement probably won't hold much value when compared to having a piece of cheesecake. We make resolutions and then look backwards on them for a year. We let the "us" of the past control what we do in the future.

I propose a different tradition: make a New Year's Goal. Flip the axis of focus around. Instead of being reminded about that thing you promised you'd do, make a open-ended forward goal. In this way, every step you make in progress is not towards a bar that has already been set, as in a resolution. "I've been smoking too much, so I resolved to cut back. But I've already smoked two packs this week, so I might as well stop the whole thing."

With a goal, you are already firmly on ground, and everything from that moment on is motion towards the goal. "I have a goal to quit smoking. I've had a stressful week and smoked in excess, but next week I won't need to smoke as much since the reports will be over."

I, too, have made a goal. It's the same one I've been working towards for several years. Earlier this evening, I made a step towards it. I didn't do it because I had resolved to. I did it because it moves me along the path towards my aspiration. Events in my past cannot change, but the degree to which I dwell on them is under my control. The actions in my past "are", but they need not control who I am.

I am able to do this also because the span of years lessens pain. It removes the immediacy of unfortunate things from my attention. It doesn't remove the memories, though! Those are the record. I use them to steer by, trying to move in the direction of what I think is best for me.

So, do what needs to be done! Remember that the past cannot be changed, and that this unchangeability is a good thing. It cannot be changed, but it IS the past. The present (and by extension, the future) can be changed.

All we need to do is decide to move the glass back to the other side.

1 comment:

  1. I concur, resolutions are stupid. No one ever does them. It's the "all or nothing" phenomenon. Goals are something to work towards--perhaps more positively framed. I think it's more of a mind set thing. Goals are more optimistic and resolutions, because of the baggage they carry, tend to be a bit more daunting. :S