Home >Opinion >Views >We’re finally living in the present—and trying to escape

All the wisdom the world imparts, in essence, is some guy asking you to be as weird as him. Except one piece of eternal advice. “Live in the present." This is an exception because even the anomalous people who say it do not practise it. Before the covid pandemic, I did not know anyone who lived in the present, or at least lived in the present in a meaningful way, beyond a fleeting minute or so. Yet, ‘live in the present’ is one of the most venerated bits of advice we have heard since childhood. Savants of all races have insulted people who live either in the past or in the future—all of humanity, that is. The ideal way to be, we are told, is to live in the present.

Now, everyone is living in the present. The lockdowns, despite some respite, have made people live in a very long interminable moment. And they despise it.

The days are identical; the nights don’t hold the promise of anything new; the cast of characters at home and the hisses of appliances never change. We are in the daily rehearsal of a play whose premiere has been put off many times. The present, which always had the modesty of being a mere corridor to a door, is now an ever lengthening hallway.

Some writers have been finishing page after page, some artists have been finishing canvas after canvas, all thinkers have thought long and well, and children have been finishing their lessons, but the work of most of the world depends on actions in the real world and they feel stranded in time. People have been planning and planning, but how much planning can they do without events occurring, ending, collapsing, succeeding, or failing? Hope itself is primarily a sense of motion.

The future will come one day, no one disputes that. But what has confounded people is the stillness of the present, the disappearance of motion towards the future. Everything we used to do in the present, it is now clear, was done to move towards the future, to downgrade it to the present and move on, and so on until we die.

Bathing, shaving, waxing, other forms of grooming a man does not fully comprehend, and even wishing to be a better person suddenly have no meaning without a sense of movement. So what was it all about before the pandemic—us just escaping the tedium of the present?

Trapped in the present, we can now fully understand why we find stories powerful, why we convert even truth into stories, and also people and nations. Stories have motion. In fact, it is clumsy to even say that because the fundamental quality of a story is that it is something that moves. Every idea of a story that tries to defy this quality will fail. A train that is still is still a train, but a story that is still is not a story.

This is the most corrupt aspect of literature—its humility. Through the story, through motion, a story reaches out to you and wins the right to introduce you to minds and ideas.

A story in which nothing happens is widely venerated by various middlemen of storytelling, just as the middlemen of philosophy have venerated living in the present. A still story, and a life in the moment, are not without charm. But what is dishonest is the expectation that we should not find such stillness drab, too dull to engage us. Most of us instinctively fear boredom because it is a type of sorrow that does not require tragedy to thrive.

To set a character in motion, writers give him an objective, or at least an inescapable fate. Even justice in a story is only a trick to set a character in motion.

This might be the central flaw in every story. Our pandemic suggests as much. The idea that life moves because characters have an objective might be the inverse of reality.

We so need a sense of motion, we so need to move from the insufferable present that we merely invent objectives and reasons. Maybe we are not so material, after all; just an animal that cannot handle the stillness of the present, unlike other animals. Thus, yet again, it is clear that we are not as great as dogs probably think we are.

The stillness of the present should acquaint us better with how our ageing parents or grandparents feel. What it is to be old, why do they look so sad when there is no reason for sadness, why are they so bored, and why do the happiest among them work so hard when they do not have to. And why do the old men of politics never quietly retire, and instead harm whole nations with their persistence.

We wish to put our beloved old in a nice cage where they cannot cause much harm. And we also expect them to be satisfied in the company of other old people, and not seek out the young so often, who always have some place to go to or something to do. However, the old too feel the interminable boredom of the present, and they too wish to advance to the future, and even to them future is not always death.

We are dreamers, and we are told by the people who tell us such stuff that we should not “live" in our dreams. We are taught to condemn day-dreaming because a dream that does not lead to anything is a waste of the present. But then, now we know that future does not exist for us to actually achieve it, but merely to escape the oppression of the present. Not everyone needs to know what they want, where they have to be, and not everyone’s life can have purpose. But everyone needs to flee.

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