In the middle of life

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Some people say you should live every day as if it were your last. I partly agree with this view but object to it on two counts.

The first is that most people would indulge in activities that are harmful over the long term. In my case I would stuff myself with chocolates from morning till evening and not go to work. After a month of living every day as if it were my last I would have gained several kilos and have no job. Since I am already several kilos overweight and don’t have much money, this would be a bad thing.

My other objection is that if I genuinely imagined this was going to be my last day on earth, rather than luxuriating in each precious moment, I would be panicking. I would be trying to imagine what death is like. The nearest I can get to this is to imagine lying unmoving in total blackness forever. I know this can’t be right but that’s the best my imagination can do.

Apart from imagining what death is like I would be phoning my sister to make sure she knows that I want to be cremated, not buried. I have seen too many horror movies where people wake up in their coffins.

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Such pictures help you appreciate things you now take for granted but the effect soon wears off.

Even so, I do have some sympathy with the idea of keeping both your own death and that of people close to you in mind. I’m sure this can help you to value things more though whether that extra bit of appreciation outweighs the scary thoughts about death is not obvious to me. Either way, left to my own devices I tend to imagine that I will live forever. I have to make a conscious effort to remember that this is not the case. I also have to make an effort to feel thankful for being alive in the first place. Counting my blessings doesn’t come easily to me and quickly sends me to sleep, just as counting sheep does for others.

On top of the above objections, I think that living in a way that can be sustained over long periods of time is more satisfying than living for the moment. I recently re-read Lee Harris’s essay The Future of Tradition in which he extols the virtues of societies where parents see their role as that of transmitting accumulated wisdom to the next generation. They want to leave the world in as good a state as when they came into it. Harris feels that for a civilisation to be both good and durable its members must have their eyes set firmly on the well-being of their descendants. I like this idea.

Being prudent comes easily to me because I am naturally more interested in my long term survival than in short term pleasure. As long as I am not being tortured I tend not to distinguish much between very enjoyable moments and ordinary ones. I am just as happy typing this in my tiny flat in Tokyo as I would be lying on a beach in Guam sipping a pina colada. Some people find this strange but I think that once your life has risen beyond the level of mere subsistence, further improvements seem trivial, due to the Law of Diminishing Returns.

So despite being familiar with both the argument that we live only in the present moment and with Roger Whittaker’s song New World in the Morning in which he opines that tomorrow never comes, that way of thinking just doesn’t suit me. I suspect that I am not peculiar in this. My mother recently bought a house and I live there with her when I am back in England. She is presently spending all her time, money and energy on renovating the house, which includes having it completely re-wired, the boiler and heater renewed, new carpets and flooring put in, new cupboards in various rooms fitted, along with other smaller improvements. (She isn’t physically doing all this work herself, you understand. Men come in to do it). Though we have never talked about it I am pretty sure she is doing this both for her present gratification and my future one.

Anyway, I too get pleasure in securing the future, both my own and of that part of the world that I care for. Without a sense of myself existing in a constant stream of time I don’t know how I would go about orientating myself.

The truth is that it makes more sense to live each day as if it were your first than your last. This way you could look at things through new eyes, as if you were seeing things for the first time. I think this is what practitioners of Mindfulness try to do. They cultivate ‘beginners mind’ and try to shed the familiarity of things around us. This strikes me as a good idea but in practice it’s hard to remember to be amazed by the familiar. Such an intense gaze requires a conscious effort and is too intentional for my taste. I want to live naturally and this means living each day neither as though it were my last nor my first but somewhere in the middle.

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