Sunday, May 23, 2010

Now and Then

Be here now!   Ram Dass, the psychedelic guru of sixties, gave that advice decades ago, and it’s never really gone out of style.  So a more recent spiritual guidebook is called The Power of Now.  Then there’s Simple Zen: A Guide to Living Moment By Moment.  Another author preaches The Naked Now: Learning to See As the Mystics See.  Enlightenment, judging by the book titles at least, means not living in the past or getting tangled in worries about the future. 

With no sense of the past, however, there would be no real reason to experience remorse or feel regret for mistakes made, no real incentive to atone or make restitution for misdeeds.  Moral categories of guilt and forgiveness fall by the wayside. 

Sometimes we should feel sorry for things we’ve said and done, in my opinion—and try to behave better in the future than we acted previously.

Wallowing in the past can be unhealthy.  But amnesia about our personal and collective history can also be debilitating.  Should America forget its history of slavery, or Germans just drop Auschwitz down the memory hole?  As William Faulkner said of the South, where the shadow of the Confederacy and Jim Crow still lingers, “the past isn’t over; it’s not even the past.”

Whatever enlightenment means, it must imply more than living in a perpetually sunny present moment   It must entail being able to see the Big Picture—where our lives unfold through good times and bad, where nations err, tragedies occur and crimes are committed, but where failures need not be endlessly repeated, not at least if we remember what needs to be changed and resolve to reform.

“One day at a time” may be a helpful philosophy for some.  But I think it takes three days to make us fully human: yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Together they give the present instant—this brief interlude between eons gone by and endless years to come—its fullest savor.


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