Don’t fret—you’ll only remember the good stuff anyways

While doing some reading on the topic of time yesterday, I came across a quote from William James:

“Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”

It is true that all moments are fleeting. As we think about time, there is forever this tension between trying to be in the moment, and recognizing that “now” is practically non-existent. By the time it can be thought of, it has already faded into the past.

There is an anticipating self, an experiencing self, and a remembering self. The good life requires giving proper attention to all three. In general, while we talk about how hard it is to be in the moment, I think it is actually easiest to over-indulge the experiencing self. We make decisions based on current feelings and energy levels. Certain aspects of the anticipating and remembering selves can be likewise given too much thought: dread of an upcoming meeting, rehashing an argument. What is harder is to make decisions in the present that will make the anticipating and remembering selves happier. Doing this requires planning wonderful things in the future to look forward to (while knowing that not all will be perfect), and rather than asking what we feel like doing now, ask what the remembering self will look back fondly on having done.

I have been thinking of this tension in planning my summer. I know my second son’s “Mommy Day” will involve roller coasters, and I’m not particularly into that idea, but I scouted out the park to figure out which ones I can deal with, and watched the point-of-view videos to see what the rides would entail, so I can actually somewhat look forward to them. I also know that the rides themselves will take about 2 minutes each, and I can deal with pretty much anything for 2 minutes. And then — this is key — my remembering self will be happy that I gave my son this experience. My anticipating self can already picture his little gap-toothed grin.

We are also figuring out an end-of-August vacation. A little over two years ago, we took the crew to the Netherlands during tulip time in April. This was an item on my bucket list. As my husband and I were talking about potential locations last night, he reminded me of how much of that trip was tough. The kids were jet-lagged (though that doesn’t seem worse than the baby constantly waking up in the middle of the night now). They had trouble with art museums and foreign food. Even the day we went to an amusement park was cold and rainy. That is true, but my remembering self thinks of little of that now. Instead, I see seas of tulips, bright in the spring sunshine. I remember biking in a park, I remember seeing the little town my grandfather left years before. I remember being up in the middle of the night, but my memory is of writing the first draft of I Know How She Does It in my jet-lagged state.

It is hard to be perfectly happy in the moment, but my memory of that trip is happy. My remembering self is glad we went. My anticipating self learns to trust that there will be more happy memories to come — possibly things I cannot currently fathom. This is the stuff of hope. Unlike the present, it can be perpetual. It is not gone in the instant of becoming.


A version of this article originally appeared on Laura Vanderkam’s website.