One of the hardest skills we’re obliged to develop on our journey is the skill of realizing when we can’t change a thing, and moving on to the next thing.
Anyone who has tried to move on after a mistake, after a heartbreak, or after a loss, can tell you that it’s not easy.
Our first impulse is to try to hold on to the moment, as if by holding on to it, we can somehow keep it from moving on. Maybe if we hold on to it long enough, hard enough, we can yank that now-past moment into the present, where we’ll have another shot at whatever just happened.
We know it doesn’t work that way. But we often just can’t stop ourselves from trying.
When someone passes away, our response is often to go back to the last time we spoke with them; the last email exchange we had with them; the last text exchange we had with them.
It’s almost as if that moment is so close to us in the grand scheme of time, that we can’t possibly be asked by a reasonable, rational universe to let that moment go— I mean, it was RIGHT HERE, so close, so real.
Still warm, as it is.
Similarly, when we, or someone else, says something that it turns out we can’t take back, our response is often to review in our minds all the verbalizations that led up to that fateful remark.
As if by reviewing the trail that led there might offer us the opportunity to take a shortcut, or to branch off in a different direction, so we don’t end up saying or hearing what we did.
Time offers us this illusion of a second chance.
But time’s a trickster in that regard, because the fact of the matter is: time only, ever, moves forward.
All of our efforts to yank the past back into the present, with the intent of somehow altering it, are not only wasted energy, because time doesn’t flow that way: they’re actually harming our ability to exist in the present moment and look forward to the future.
Any time we buy into an illusion— an illusion we know better than to buy into— we’re knowingly practicing self-deception…and our self-esteem registers that.
Our self-esteem won’t let us get away with practicing self-deception. Not for long, anyway.
We find the seductive illusion of the “do-over” in a lot of places in our culture. There are a lot of products and services that promise, in effect, to turn back time, to give us another shot at opportunities we might feel like we’ve squandered.
There are products offer us the opportunity to look and feel younger.
There are TV shows and movies that sometimes seem to exist for the exclusive purpose of allowing us to relive memories from decades past.
Entire industries are built around fostering a sense of nostalgia, encouraging us to return to the younger versions of ourself that we once were, before the weight of all this grown up “adulting” began sapping our spirits and intruding upon our consciousness.
Understand, I have no problem with nostalgia. You’re reading the work of a guy who has framed theatrical posters from the original “Star Wars” movies in my living room and whose office is full of Superman and Batman comic book art. I’m not saying stay away from things that exist to remind you of your past. There are often good memories and feelings to be enjoyed there.
What I am saying is: in enjoying our past, let us not buy into this illusion that we can recreate it.
Let us not deny and disown the lives we’ve created and the events that have happened since then— even if there are aspects of those lives and events that have been painful.
Let us not attempt to hang on to moments that we wish we could do over— because ultimately the urge to hang on to those moments is only going to frustrate and hurt us.
If we stand in the middle of a river and do everything we can to keep even a cup full of water from rushing along on its journey downstream, the very best we’ll be able to do is to keep a minute amount of water in kind of the same place for an infinitesimal amount of time.
Water was meant to flow downstream.
Time was meant to flow forward.
Human beings were designed to prevent neither from flowing onward…but how we deal with the certainty of that flow will powerfully impact how useful and beautiful the overall river is to us.
We don’t have to like the fact that we can’t yank a past moment into the present, or hold on to a moment that is even now passing.
We don’t have to approve of the passing of time; we don’t have to pretend that there is not pain involved with the passing of time, the cooling off of the once-warm moment.
But we simply cannot pretend that the river won’t continue to flow, even if we stand in the middle of it.
The river has its own way of dealing with obstacles that stand in the middle of its flow and refuse to move: it erodes them away, eventually to nothing.
The river will flow longer than you can stand. Believe that.
So mourn the passing of the moments if you must. Mourn the flow of the river.
But resist the temptation to grab at the water.
It will slip through your fingers— as water does.
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