But the present? That’s another story

We live in the past. We imagine the future. But the present? That’s another story. Of course, people can understand why regret, for example, is a retrospective attitude and why wishful thinking is tied to the future. What might be a bit more difficult to grasp is the fact that we  live most of our lives in the past. When someone asks you the question, “who are you?,” have you ever stopped to think how your response is most likely an inventory list of things you have accomplished in the past or attributes of yourself that are the result of past experiences?  This is what existentialists have been trying to tell us for ages, that one of the greatest fiction of our lives is the belief that we are actually living the present.  We fail to see how the unit of time we call the present is saturated with pastness beyond the point of recognition.

It is not our fault, and I doubt if it is in our control to do otherwise. Philosophers have often said that the present is an unlivable moment. We often think of the past as the moment we can no longer live since it is often lost to the passage of time. We also think of the future as unlivable because it is yet to come. Yet the present is the moment that, paradoxically, we cannot live. It is empty, dark, hollow, and insufficient ground for itself. The present always escapes us because it is the moment where the past folds into the future. Like the breaking of dawn, the present is fleeting. It emerges in a flash only to be consumed by the past and disappear into the future.

But another problem presents itself. If there is no present, then there cannot be a past. Remember that it is in the passing of the present that the past is created.  The absence of a present can therefore only mean one thing, that the past has not yet happened. And all this confusion must, I am inclined to wonder, point to the fact that we have to look to the future for the present and the past. And since the future is always yet to happen, neither the past nor the present ever really takes place.

Photo Credit: Fast Eddie

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I'm finishing up a phd at Duke University where I study African novels, which I believe are some of the loveliest things ever written. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

4 Responses to “But the present? That’s another story” Subscribe

  1. Mr. Gaskin 2010/12/06 at 10:38 pm #

    Maybe the present is a reality. For many people reality is harsh.

  2. Boye 2010/12/15 at 2:55 pm #

    Two thoughts come to mind. The present is the nexus where past and future meet and part to meet and part over and over again. But your summary brings us to Hindu/Buddhist concept of Maya and life as we know it being but an illusion. For if there is no present, no past or future, then what is?

  3. Darin 2011/01/13 at 2:50 pm #

    Mr. Gaskin informed me of your blog. I found this entry fascinating. I have had these toughts of time and existentialism for some time. Those questions drove me to write the following short piece years ago. He, Mr. Gaskin, thought that I should share.

    To the probing question of who I am:
    I am me, will have to be enough said
    It is as honest as I can be
    If I tell you more
    It will be outdated
    All that I can tell you is my past
    You told me not to dwell in the past
    You care about the present
    But it takes me time to know the me of now
    By the time I learn that me
    It will be then again
    I told you that all I am is a collection of memories
    I have not found a way to take a picture of tomorrow
    I do not have any recollection of the future
    So all I can show you is who I was
    I hope that in the future you will not mind dwelling in the past
    And you can love the me, I use to be
    Sincerely Unconditionally

  4. admin 2011/01/14 at 12:31 am #

    Hey Darin,

    Many thanks for visiting Brittle Paper. And thanks for sharing your beautiful poem with us. I am fascinated too by Time and the human attempt to make sense of it. The way we break time up into distinct categories sometimes seems rather questionable to me. It was nice to see you posing that same concern in your poem when you suggest that there can be a past in the future: “I hope that in the future you will not mind dwelling in the past.” Thanks again.

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