Several of my Facebook friends like to post inspirational and thought-provoking quotes on a regular basis. Two or three of them have recently posted a quote which has been attributed to Lao Tzu
If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.
As someone who has lately been bouncing back and forth between these states of mind, I can appreciate the essential wisdom of the quote. Most of my feelings of depression lately have been spurred on by my regrets about things I wish I had done differently in my life, and so in that regard, they are an instance of dwelling in the past. Most of my anxiety stems from my concerns about where our country is headed under its current leadership (or lack thereof), and my feelings of uncertainty or even paralysis as to what is or should be the best path for me to take from this point forward. The more I think about it, the more overwhelming the many different options start to become.
Partly because of the circumstances which have fueled both my recent feelings of depression and of anxiety, I also have to wonder whether or not the “living in the present” endorsed by the quote is really so desirable after all. When things are going well, yes, that sounds ideal, but isn’t there the risk of a sort of complacency which can result in self-indulgence, lack of ambition and disengagement?
I thought of these points and more yesterday when Glenn Reynolds linked to
a post by Sarah Hoyt entitled “If You Don’t Work, You Die.”
In the post, Hoyt reflects on the importance of what she refers to as envy and striving for growth and life, which, to my mind suggests a certain resistance to complacency. She reflects on an experiment in Denver in the 1970s with a guaranteed minimum income and the finding that a certain segment of the population was content to live on it and to stop striving to better their lives, and she speculates that it is partly an inherited trait which had value in the conservation of social energy. The part of the post that fascinated me the most was when she described herself in the following terms:
Some of us are broken. We were given both envy and high principles. We can’t even contemplate bringing others down to level things, but instead we work madly to increase our status. (No, it’s not how I think about it, but it’s probably what’s going on in the back of the monkey brain.) Most of humanity however is functional. Give them enough to eat, and a place to live, and no matter how unvaried the diet and how small/terrible the place, most people will stay put.
It seems to me that she has hit on something crucial there because although I’m often tempted to focus on being content with things the way are, every so often something happens to jar me from that state of mind, either by making me feel depressed or anxious or by throwing me off balance completely with some new dream or hope.
I’d like to write more about the disruptive power and potential value of such dreams, but for the time being, I’d like to pose a question for our readers. When we live in difficult and challenging times, how can one try to remain “in the present” without falling into complacency or without becoming disengaged from the sorts of issues and problems that threaten to make existence even more trying and difficult?