Quick! How many shopping days left?
Wait. Before you answer that, I have a point to make. (By which I mean: I have a rant to… rant.) Am I the only one who’s still digesting the last of the turkey leftovers? Who’s still in possession of one final, lonely slice of pumpkin pie? These are rather delightful things, you know, the remnants of a triptophan coma, the taste of that once-a-year treat, but they become hard to enjoy when one’s airwaves are saturated with headlines about Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and god knows whatever other manufactured shopping marker days we’ll soon come across–days which seem to have lost all significance other than their relation to some other day in the future.
What about Fall, for the love of galoshes?
My irritation here isn’t just about the woeful disregard for a near-entire season, delightful though this poor, readily-forgotten season may be (crunchy leaves, hot toddies, holidays devoted exclusively to food and clothing devoted exclusively to disguising the sins borne of holidays devoted exclusively to food, hats… what’s not to love?). Nor is it even about the consumerism that reduces everything to a marker on the shopper’s calendar, but something more. This hurry-up-and-break-out-the-tinsel business kills me because it is emblematic of our refusal to live in the moment. Our addiction to living in the future.
Some might say you have to plan for the future, lest you meet a terrible fate. Save for retirement or become a bag lady! Get to the dentist every six months or plan on forking over a significant chunk of that retirement money for Super Poli-Grip. Make sure the salmon has enough time to defrost or subsist on Ramen. All of which is fine, to a certain extent. But where is the line between responsible personhood and letting your life pass you by?
When I was a kid, looking forward to Christmas, the only way to temper my rabid anticipation was to mark each of the preceding 24 days with the yanking open of the properly-numbered window on my Advent Calendar. I’d wake up each morning and scream down the hall: “What’s my numberrrrr?” Anticipation is a sleep-killer; I would wake up early, and I would yell until I got an answer. Whichever parent was less irritated with my antics would give me my number, and I’d suck down the chocolate drum or bell or whatever it was so quickly I barely allowed my taste buds time enough to register its flavor. And then I’d wait, desperately, for that day to pass. Rinse, repeat.
(One year, so excited I perhaps convinced myself that quicker consumption of the chocolate would somehow influence the space-time continuum in my favor, I opened all of the windows, and downed every last chocolate. Alas, it didn’t work. Which was a bummer, as then I was left with no daily treat to look forward to. Only far-off Christmas. And the in-between time to mark.)
I marked entire years by holidays back then. How much longer until Christmas? Until Summer? Until my birthday? Until my sixteenth birthday?
Don’t wish your life away, my parents would say.
I hated that line. Like I was a fool; like they somehow knew something I didn’t. I’m not wishing my life away, I’d think, daydreaming about how much cooler my life would be once Santa brought me my roller skates, or when I could drive myself to the mall.
Now, of course, I look back and wonder, where did all of the time go? How many todays did I spend counting down to the arrival of how many tomorrows? How many carefree autumn afternoons did I fail to savor, how many crispy leaves did I forget to notice as they crunched under my running feet, ferreting me home to write my letter to Santa? Now, I can admit my parents might have had a point. (Might have had a point. I still hate it when they’re right.)
Happiness scholars might view this affliction in terms of what they call the hedonic treadmill. It’s a trap, really, characterized by when-then thinking. Like: when I lose 20 pounds, then I’ll be happy. When I make a million dollars, then I’ll be happy. When I get married, have a baby, get promoted, retire… You get the point. Of course, the problem with a treadmill is that, run as you might, you never really get anywhere. And what such scholars have found is that, no matter how much we believe winning the lottery or getting laid or changing jobs might make us happier, and now matter how giddy the anticipated thing might make us immediately, before we know it, we’re right back to where we started. Happy as we ever were. But in a way, not, because, no sooner have we broken in those new roller skates than we’re chasing after the really cool roller blades we can’t wait for Santa to bring us next year.
Buddhists might serenely explain that the problem with futuristic thinking is that, by definition, it diminishes the value of the present. They’re right, of course. Which ultimately sucks. Because the future never comes. It just hangs out there, in the future. And in the meantime, while we’re focusing on it, we’re missing today.
And so, I ask you. Must we really spend the remainder of this season, beautiful, slow, lovely Fall, focusing only on one day in the future–an admittedly splashy, gift-wrapped spectacle of a day… a day that, it’s worth pointing out, happens to fall a couple of days into Winter? Please, let’s not. As they in their imminent wisdom like to say, the present is a gift. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could somehow take the focus off the future and instead focus on unwrapping what’s right in front of us? And at the moment, what’s right in front of me is that one remaining, not-yet-stale piece of pumpkin pie. And it is delicious.