Note for future readers: today is April 4, 2020. The world just diagnosed our 1,000,000th positive case of COVID-19, and we wait in shelter.
The most profound thing about the last time you do something is that you don’t know it’s the last time until it just … is. You just never know, until the end. The last time you go outside or share a meal with a friend, you’ll have no idea.
My friend Van told me this a few days ago, and I’ve been mulling it over on occasion ever since. If we won’t ever see the last time coming, what are the implications?
One common takeaway seems to be something that rhymes with the sentiment that we should live every experience as if it’s the last one of a kind. Savor it, take it in. On the off-chance it turns out to be. Start every morning as if you only have the next six months to live. Make the most of each day. It’s a useful perspective, and seems most relevant during this time of unbounded uncertainty. Yet, to me, this seems unnecessarily morbid and impractical. Living this way seems like being a slave to the slim risk of unforeseen oblivion. At least, for where I am in life now, I choose not to see life this way.
But to live in complete ignorance of that perspective – to live as if the future is guaranteed – also seems fraught. Surely, there’s no better way to maximize regret when it does really come to the last time, than to pretend as if it’ll never arrive. In every moment, we have to balance the hope that there will be a next time with the inherent uncertainty that hope springs eternal, while our time doesn’t.
When I struggle with uncertainty, whether in a relationship or a career decision or a pandemic, my battle is to suspend myself somewhere in between these two extremes.
Sometimes it feels like we’re all in a seven-billion-people race to finish a painting. We sprint towards an empty canvas, brush and paint in hand, furiously debating which subject to paint, whose style to emulate, to create the most impressive or meaningful painting – never mind that the idea of a superlative painting might not even make sense. Some of us stop and dip the brush in early, and others of us spend years studying the centuries of priors in the art of painting.
But don’t we really all start our lives early on with the brush already on the canvas? We’re leaving streaks and splotches from the time we can talk and think. There is no race, no eraser. We can try to cover up our earlier mistakes later, and try not to put too much down far too early, but there’s still just the one sheet of canvas, and at some point, our colors run dry. We just won’t know when, until the brush just stops. If you’re reading this, your brush, like mine, is already worn.
I like to think that the game we need to play isn’t so much a balancing act in between complete subjugation to or ignorance of impending oblivion, but a continuous decision of where to place our paint-soaked brushes on the canvas each day. I like this because it focuses our attention onto the present, which is the only slice of time we can control. Even as we consider what’s on our canvas so far, and what we might imagine it to contain in the future, that future won’t come without the brushstrokes put down now.
Hold on to the now. When the quarantine ends, we’ll have a new now, and we’ll hold on to it instead. And we’ll keep going like that, stepping from one now to the next one, until the last one.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, My favorite projects.
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