When I was in my early twenties, my friends and I would stay up all night, eat junk food whenever we felt like it and dance like there was no tomorrow.
I think it may have been the closest I have ever been to living in the moment. And it was wonderful.
Then came a “real” job, marriage, and kids, and suddenly, in what felt like a blink of an eye, it became really hard to exist in just moments. Instead, even knowing how fast time was flying, living was all about what comes next — getting that better job, vacations, raising children to be great adults: making a life.
But when I found out that I had leukemia and then lost my dad to a more than decades-long bout with dementia, it felt as if the universe was shouting at me: Tomorrow isn’t a sure thing! And when, this past summer, my little brother died unexpectedly, it was official: life can not only be really unfair, it’s also tenuous, fragile and heinously sneaky. While losing my health, my father and my brother have been giant reminders of the importance of enjoying the present, I still have my eye on the future — except this time, focusing on it in a who-knows-when-my-time-is-going-to-run-out kind of way. And let’s be honest, that’s no way to live.
In fact, worrying about the next possible crisis is a most effective way to fritter away your present.
Certainly, we all have heard countless soliloquies along the lines of how ‘life is short,’ ‘you only live once,’ and ‘every moment is precious.’ We know it intuitively, but when we’re in the thick of really hard things — like a scary diagnosis, a devastating loss, or a soul-crushing pandemic — it’s easy to hate the present, to want to speed ahead to sunnier times, or simply allow ourselves to be paralyzed into mindlessly floating through our days, hoping the end comes soon.
This week, I found out that a friend’s husband — an all-around great guy, always with a quick smile and a joke, who takes good care of his family, coaches kids hockey, and supports the community — has pancreatic cancer. The prognosis isn’t good.
When I called to lend support, she answered in a clipped voice. It was the same voice she used the time her youngest child went to the park alone and couldn’t be found, and when her daughter, driving for the first time at night, called crying after almost hitting a deer — it was a steady, I can’t lose focus, but I am just barely keeping it together voice. For the rest of us looking in, it’s yet another cold reminder of how no one knows what’s coming next, that life is short and that tomorrow is not promised.
(By the way, universe, I am waving the white flag. For heaven’s sake, I get it.)
But accepting that all that’s for sure is this moment is really difficult. And go ahead, fill as many gratitude journals as you want with all the things you are thankful for, but when life gets really crappy, it takes superhero-calibre strength to consciously find joy in the present. And it’s exhausting.
Too worried about dying to live
I met a man at a conference years ago. We were speaking on a panel about the importance of affordable treatments for people with rare diseases. He wore a furry brown hat with long flaps that covered his ears. “I hate feeling the air conditioning on my head,” he said, when someone commented on his sense of style, given that it was the middle of a hot Toronto summer. He told me later that he was self-conscious about the hair he had lost because of medication he was taking to slow the progression of a deadly cancer.
When I asked him how he was doing, he smiled sadly.
“I am so worried about dying that I can’t really live,” he said. We were on a break for lunch, standing in a line for gingerbread cookies. He had already spent too much time fretting about how he probably shouldn’t have one — given his doctor’s recent recommendation to eat better — when the woman behind us sighed loudly.
“You know you want to,” she cackled loudly, the heavy gold hoop earrings that were weighing her earlobes down rocked back and forth as she laughed.
“The cookies are worth the wait,” she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially as she described how she had snatched one from the tray as it was being pushed out of the kitchen.
“You only have one life to live,” she said, holding up a finger with a giant ring in the shape of a cat on it. “And it’s too short to worry about cookies.”
The man looked pained for a moment. With an incurable disease, he knew all too well how short life could be, but like a lot of people living with a serious illness, he faced a constant internal battle — how not to let worry about the future overshadow the joy of the present.
“All I can think about is how I wish I could have cookies forever and ever,” he said with a half-hearted chuckle. When we finally got to the little booth where a small woman with her grey hair wound tightly in a bun was gripping a pan with purple oven mitts and handing out warm gingerbread cookies, he shook his head and walked away.
But it’s not just scary health issues that can put you in this impossibly distressing frame of mind. Anyone who has experienced loss or other painful trauma and witnessed the uncertainty of life will tell you that it’s really hard to truly enjoy the cookie when all you can think about is the day you won’t be able to have that cookie. Doesn’t that sound bananas? Because if you know your days are numbered, as all of ours are — some more than others — shouldn’t you eat as many cookies as you can? And smile while doing it?
Well, yes. Except that mostly we don’t, because it’s hard, says psychology researcher Courtney E. Ackerman. More than ever before, humans are encouraged to live in either the past or obsess about the future, she says, rather than pay attention to the present. But living in the here and now “is the key to staying healthy and happy,” she says. “It helps you fight anxiety, cut down on your worrying and rumination, and keeps you grounded and connected to yourself.”
Are you spending more time in the past than the present?
To get there, Ackerman suggests finding a balance between how much time you spend in the past and the future, only allowing yourself time in both in “small doses,” spending the majority of your time in the present. She adds that it takes practice — yoga, mindfulness, writing in a journal are all things that help keep you in the here and now. In other words, enjoying the “cookie,” instead of letting your mind get ahead of itself and steal the joy of the moment.
For sure, there’s no shortage of reminders these days of how our lives can change in a split second. Between the daily bad news and the constant feeling of impending doom, it can be difficult to treasure the present. And there’s nothing like a killer virus potentially lurking in every inhale to make you wish the days away, sink into despair and spend your time longing for better.
But we all know the woman with the cat ring was right. We only have one life, and whenever we can, we should eat the damn cookie.