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How often do you think about the future? How much time do you spend thinking about the expectations you have for yourself, your life, those around you? How much time do you spend in your mind in the future, so much so that you don’t really live in the present?
Last week I talked about how it’s easy to get stuck in the past, and how doing so is a waste of energy because it not something that we have control over. Today I want to talk about holding expectations of the future can set us up for frustration and disappointment, and the tools the Stoics give us to enjoy life in the present.
You have been trying to reach many things by taking the long way around. All these things can be yours right now if you stop denying them to yourself. All you have to do is let go of the past, trust the future to providence, and direct the present to reverence and justice.
— Marcus Aurelius
While we know we can’t change the past, our actions in the present have some impact on what will happen in the future. This makes us feel like we have some control over what happens to us. But I want to propose that we should not look at our current choices as something that will change the future and create a desired outcome, but that we should focus on living in the moment, and let the outcome be what it will.
When we do something in the present, we do so hoping it will create a desire outcome in the future. But, as well all know, life throws all kinds of things our way, and so an expected outcome is never guaranteed. We can do the same thing 100 times and have the same result each time, only to find on the 101st time that because of some unforeseen event, we get a different outcome, something that we never expected. When something falls outside of what we expected to happen, outside of our expectations, we struggle, we get angry, we are disappointed.
You only live in the present, this fleeting moment. The rest of your life is already gone or not yet revealed.
— Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics talk a lot about Memento Mori, to remember death, to think about your mortality. This is not because they were a depressed lot who only thought about how awful life was. The Stoics found that this exercise sharpened their senses and their appreciation for the present moment. Knowing that any moment could be your last, you can approach each day with a sense of appreciation that you are able to do what it is you are doing. It helps you to focus on what is important, and let go of what is not. Would you rather that your last moments we spent on fretting about something unimportant or out of your control, or would you rather hold a sense of gratitude for every moment that you experience, even the unpleasant ones?
Because we could die at any moment, expecting that something will work out some particular way in the future is something that could change on a dime. You may not even be here to see it. Some people may see this as have a pessimistic or morbid outlook. I disagree. It’s a very pragmatic outlook, and a very present minded one. It helps you to appreciate that all you have is this moment.
I want to share a story that was shared with me from one my listeners by the username of Pluto shared with me that illustrates this idea very well.
“Yesterday I was walking out my dog and listening one of your episodes about living in the moment. Then it occurred to me that I could listen the podcast later, and instead I could just enjoy the walk with my dog. I took my headphones out and focused on my surroundings. I watched my lovely dog closely, thought about how her life span is shorter than mine and I have a limited number of walks with her. I noticed how much I will miss her once she leaves. I teared up a bit, then had a highly enjoyable walk.”
I just want to say, thank you so much for sharing that moment with me.
How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life.
― Marcus Aurelius
The second tool that the Stoics recommend to us is “Amor Fati”, to “love our fate”. When we love our fate, we accept what life throws our way. We don’t complain about what has happened. We do our best to recognize that this is just a part of life and that if it upsets us, it is because we have expectations of what we think should happen that are counter to what actually is happening. By loving our fate, we keep our expectations flexible because we never know what could happen.
We are constantly upset because we made plans and had expectations, but then it didn’t come out how we wanted. To love whatever happens to us means we let go of trying to control something we can’t. It also means that the faster we can accept it, the faster we can deal with life as it really is.
So how do we get better at not getting stuck in the future, and loving our fate?
In improv, there is a phrase called “Yes, and…” What it means is that when you’re working through a scene with your fellow actors, that when something else gets introduced into the scene, rather than fighting against it because you think that it doesn’t belong, or that it is something unexpected, you roll with it.
For example, if you’re doing a scene in a barber shop and someone says, “Hey, can I bring my pet squirrel in here?” A possible answer would be “Yes, and you’re in luck! Today is Super Squirrel Saturday! All squirrel mullet cuts and tail trims are 50% off.”
“Yes, and…” is accepting it, whatever it may be, and rolling with it. It’s this acceptance of anything coming and how to make it part of the comedy that keeps the scene moving forward. Sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes it falls flat, but that ready acceptance keeps the momentum going. If it doesn’t really work with the scene, it is still acknowledged, used as best it can be, then discarded as the scene moves on.
The better we get at simply accepting “what is” by acknowledging it rather that holding tightly to our expectations, the more we are able to enjoy the present moment. When we can approach life with a “Yes, and..”, we are less shocked by events, and we might just find ourselves laughing along with the unexpected twists and turns that life sends our way.
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