The Paradox of Being Present

Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.

–Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

I’ve been feeling spiritually gutted. Cynical. Pessimistic. And gratitude journals aren’t hacking it.

Yes, I’m grateful for my cup of coffee, I’m grateful I don’t live in a warzone. I’m grateful my husband is a feminist. I’m grateful that my kids are healthy.

But I want more. I feel restless and unsatisfied. Bleak. I read my morning newsletters and think, “We are a civilization in decline.” 

Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Trump’s delusional and inane Twitter rants. Russian hackers influencing the election. The plight of millions of displaced people. Polar ice caps melting. North Korean missile tests. 

Summoning the energy and space to feel as though I can be part of something meaningful, take pride in my work, follow a creative idea to wherever it may take me feels impossible. I am crashing two rocks together hoping that something will happen. My flint will not spark.

Buddhists remind us to be remain in the present, but the present pains me.

The immediacy of the news keeps our minds chained to the present, so that we are constantly paying attention, constantly outraged, always reacting to the latest bit of bad news. We’re taught to be engaged and to pay attention, but if we’re in a perpetual state of apoplexy, how can we possibly believe or consider what change is possible?

Then I happened upon the blog post, 10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings, by the excellent Maria Popova. All 10 learnings are worthy of exploration, but the 10th one spoke to despair I felt.

She writes, “Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively…Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction.”

Cynicism is corrosive. And I realized that the compulsion of now—the latest tweets, Facebook posts, and news headlines—keep me manacled to cynicism. I cannot catch my breath without another wave of bad news crashing on my head.

So, time to get out of the ocean. A related post connected me to Erich Fromm’s concept of rational optimism.

To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible; it is the paradoxical hope to expect the Messiah every day, yet not to lose heart when he has not come at the appointed hour. This hope is not passive and it is not patient; on the contrary, it is impatient and active, looking for every possibility of action within the realm of real possibilities.

Reading these interrelated pieces helped me move beyond my passivity and inertia. A reader, a dedicated seeker of meaning and value, Popova and her writing move me beyond my templated life and self wallowing, not with treacle and blessings, but with rational optimism. Her blog reminds me some of the greatest minds believe that we face that pervading darkness. That there is space for possibility in between what is and what may be.

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