I find it really difficult to stop the world from disappearing before my eyes. One moment I’m looking at something and the next I’ve retreated back inside my head to my own private thoughts. Then a minute later I find I have stopped for some traffic and suddenly the world is there again. But not for long. It is soon replaced by whatever I am going to have for dinner or by thoughts about something I have been reading.
I don’t know how to stop this. You simply become habituated to the physical world and very little in it is interesting enough, or novel enough, to keep your attention for long. Your mind naturally slips away. The more familiar it all becomes, the more difficult it is to hold your present environment in focus.
I sometimes ask myself whether it really matters. Maybe getting lost in my own thoughts is just as good a way of passing the time as noticing the world around me. How can you tell which way of living is best? I know that a lot of clever people tell us we should live in the present moment but they rarely tell us why. Slipping away into daydreams comes naturally to me, and to most other people, and although ‘natural’ doesn’t equal ‘good’, I would still like to know, if I’m going to struggle against a natural impulse, exactly why I am struggling.
One way I have of assessing how valuable an activity really is to me is to ask myself, ‘On my deathbed, will I say, “I wish I had spent more time doing so and so?”‘
I feel pretty sure that I won’t wish that I had spent more time lost in my own thoughts and dreaming, nor that I had spent more time surfing the internet, watching TV or reading books.
But there is one thing I might wish I had spent more time doing and that is actually looking at the world. After all, I am only here for 70 years or so and after that I won’t be coming back. Shouldn’t I at least look around while I’m here? Not to do so would be like landing on Mars and then staying in your space capsule, eating your sandwiches and drinking from your thermos until it was time to fly home again.
Sometimes it strikes me as strange to be here at all. That is, it’s strange to exist. On those occasions I see a wall or a garden and think, ‘That’s real and not just part of a dream I’m having. It’s not something being described in a book, not a photo nor an image on the internet. It is actually here, right now. And so am I. How strange!’
At such moments it hits me that my life is not never-ending, which is how I usually think of it, but something finite with a beginning and an end. That thought gives me the creeps a little.
Yet despite the odd feeling, I think that walking though the world and looking with eyes open is a worthwhile pastime compared to just daydreaming. And it isn’t the unusual things like dramatic sunsets or National Heritage Sites that I need to see. It is the banal and everyday stuff that is typical of my time on Earth that I want to notice. It is the concrete and the street lamps and the cats and the rain that I want to commit to memory.
Once you start to think this way, you start to see your world with the eyes of someone who will soon be sailing away from their homeland for ever. Then you try to fix all the hedgerows and the lanes, the rubble and the weeds. All this is part of a place you now call home but not for much longer.
And why wouldn’t you try to take in as much as possible before being swallowed up by the nothingness that is to come? Are books and TV programs and the internet really more interesting than a real street that is right in front of you? Are these just distractions, ways to stop you from thinking too closely about real life and real death? Why is it so easy to become bored with real life when we only have such a short time here anyway?
I suspect the answer is that habituation accounts for both our positive ability to get used to strange environments, and our negative penchant for taking even wonderful and precious things for granted, if we are in their company for long enough. Even so, I want to have the kind of eyes that look properly at things, eyes that really see. I don’t want eyes that slip and slide over surfaces and then glaze over completely. I want to look and commit it all to memory until the day when everything finally slips out of focus forever and the world goes black.