The cover on my barbecue is purple. Kinda.
It might be mauve, more specifically. Either way, it’s faded. Definitely faded. That’s important if you’re trying to picture it.
As I was putting it back on the other day -- after either over- or under-cooking whatever was for dinner that day (this grill-master has no in-between) -- I wondered how the hell we ended up with a purple barbecue cover.
Then I remembered: it didn’t use to be purple. It was a gleaming black on the day it came home from the store. It still does a noble job today, but it’s certainly seen some wear in its time.
I thought about exposure to the elements -- how powerful and fascinating a process that is. Moment to moment, it doesn’t seem like much is happening, but the mounting of days, weeks and so on is guaranteed to see the elements run their course. A moment’s exposure is nothing, but multiply it by a thousand -- then keep going -- and you have a physical force stronger than...well, pretty much everything.
Life works a bit like this, with its unrelenting accumulation of moments. It’s fashionable (not to mention productive) to view life as short, but there’s a bit of a paradox here. It’s short in that years have a way of whizzing by, but long in that -- like the barbecue cover -- there’s no way you make it through unscathed. Through trials and tribulations, ecstasy and tragedy and everything in between, exposure to life’s elements has a transformative effect on a person one way or another. Change, as the old saying goes, is the only constant.
The first thing to notice about the juggernaut of life exposure is that it comes as something of a surprise at a certain point in adulthood. When you’re young, you learn the concept of time, but only in a technical sense. You can’t yet grasp the weight of its accumulation, partly because in youth there’s no such thing as stagnation.
Even ignoring physical changes, every stage of youth is transitory and oriented toward the future. Heck, we even go so far as to make rituals of explicitly counting up toward adulthood. “What grade are you in?” is a big deal -- 1, 2, 3… Before that, “how old are you?” is an even bigger deal -- 4, 5, 6… until finally, 16, 17, 18… you’ve completed the first ascent of life’s roller coaster -- slow and controlled -- and now, as you come over its peak, the big, thrilling payoff.
Except adulthood isn’t always thrilling or harrowing. In fact it’s mostly not those things, day to day. Sure, there’s probably a fair bit of fun and excitement to be had along the way. But there’s also a lot of time and, as a result, a lot of...same old.
Many people compensate for this sameness by picking one or another life goal and setting their sights on the future, like we were trained to do as kids. You put your head down and get to work on pursuing the thing(s) -- job, family, house, stuff -- only to one day look up and be floored at how much time has gone by, almost without you realizing it.
“A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It's the shit that happens when you're waiting for the things that never come.” -- Lester Freamon, The Wire
The second thing to notice about the accumulation of time, in addition to the shock it produces, is that the shock itself seems to often bring on a profound sadness. Not a particularly acute sadness, mind you -- but the sort of “I thought there’d be more” crestfallen-ness that seems to partly define the human condition. The sense seems to go that if you’ve come all this way and things feel generally...unremarkable…then maybe nothing remarkable lies ahead either. It’s the sort of thing where birthdays are now a sombre event, as hope starts to give way to regret.
But it’s not the absence of remarkable things that’s at the root of that sadness. The real cause is the waiting that Lester warns about -- the future-fixation that people use to cope with the sameness of everyday life.
There are lots of different forms of waiting, from monotonous routine to dogged ambition. The routine or the ambition themselves are not the problem; the problem is the lack of regard for today. To wait for tomorrow is to let life happen to you.
People in this mode go too long between decisions about how they want to spend their time and energy now: they either picked an imagined destination a long time ago and have been on autopilot since, or they’ve never made a conscious decision at all -- only choices. (The difference between a choice and a decision? You don’t always realize you’re making the first one.)
The way to not let life happen to you is to...not wait.
To not wait is to participate actively in life -- to actually live. To not wait is to make more decisions about -- or heck, to even try to figure out -- what’s actually important to you, and to steer your actions accordingly. It’s not necessarily a matter of rejecting how you’re currently spending your time, nor of rejecting the prospect of anything that lies in the future; it’s just a matter of being conscious of your choices and experience along the way. It’s a matter of regularly questioning the premise of the things you do.
Having and applying this mindset is, I think, the difference between the passing of time being more of a cause for sadness or for celebration. With a consistent intention to value the present, the accumulation of life experience can and should be something you value for its own sake -- in some ways the most essential of all intrinsic human pleasures.
Not waiting is not the sort of thing you ever get perfect. We all suck at it to varying degrees. But it’s the sort of thing where just working at it gets you a lot of the benefit.
For my part, I spent a bunch of my young-adult years as a card-carrying member of the Tomorrow Club. I’ve since learned to suck a bit less at not waiting -- these days I challenge myself to balance hope for the future with a self-imposed requirement to enjoy the process of getting there. I don’t always get it right, but I’ll take it as a good sign that I’m not afraid of Father Time.