Taylor: No past, no future–there’s only now

The past has gone; the future hasn’t happened yet. There is only now to live in.

Two weekends ago, spring felt as though it had finally arrived. Buds swelled on the forsythia, the lilacs, the spirea. Along the driveway, a row of brave little crocuses peeped out. Peony and rhubarb roots thrust shoots exuberantly into the sunlight.

Overhead, I heard bird songs. And a male flicker pounded his beak against my chimney, the noisiest thing he could find to broadcast his mating credentials.

For flickers—members of the woodpecker family—resonant objects act like an avian e-Harmony to advertise their availability.

And then, out of nowhere, it started snowing again. The snow squall blotted out the sunshine, hid the distant hills, coated the buds and flowers with white.

I wanted the crocuses, the rhubarb, to shrink back. To withdraw. To protect themselves from the sudden change in weather.

But of course, they couldn’t. Plants only know one direction to move—forward, upward. Only members of the animal world, blessed with mobility, can pull back from danger or discomfort. A starfish can withdraw a probing tentacle; a coyote can back away from a bear; a human can decide to avoid a confrontation.

But although we animals have physical mobility, we are just as bound by time as my crocuses. We cannot reverse time. We can only keep moving in one direction.

About a month ago, a correspondent wrote to me, “If you think about it, there is only ‘now’. [Life is] a series of ‘nows’. The past is our remembrances of other ‘nows’ and the future is our projections and hopes for new ‘nows’.”

I’ve been mulling his insight ever since.

There is no past. There is no future. There is only now.

I can leap out of the path of a speeding car. But escaping that near accident doesn’t make it not happen. My narrow escape has become part of my new now—as my shortness of breath and palpitating heart testify.

I can apologize for a thoughtless comment that hurt someone. But I can’t take it back. The pain it caused continues to be part of her now, and of mine.

This suggests to me that I should not base my decisions and actions on what I did, or didn’t do, in a former now. Things are different in this now—if only because of that previous action or inaction.

Similarly, I should not base decisions on what I expect to happen in the future. The future will certainly not unfold as I expect it to. By the time what I expect gets around to happening, or not happening, it will be in a different context.

A Greek philosopher named Heraclitus, very long ago, taught that you cannot step into the same river twice. Even if you step off the same rock, the water you stepped into last time will already have flowed far downstream. And if you could find that particular patch of water again, you would have to step into it from a different place.

The past has gone; the future hasn’t happened yet. There is only now to live in.