Press "Enter" to skip to content

Living in the moment? Good – but don’t forget the past or future | Oliver Burkeman


It’s a standard, rueful observation about modern life – usually in connection with the endless bombardment of political news – that events that happened a couple of years ago, even a couple of months ago, feel as though they happened a lifetime ago. That’s strange, when you think about it, because the other standard, rueful observation about modern life is that everything (including the news) moves too fast. But if the two and a half years since the 2016 Brexit referendum feel like a lifetime ago, surely that’s a case of the world moving too slowly, not too fast?

It can’t be both – which is why I appreciate the efforts of the American literary scholar Alan Jacobs to raise the profile of a concept that makes more sense of our situation: “temporal bandwidth”. This originates in Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon, in which a character defines it as “the width of your present – the more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona”. The problem is less the speed of things than the narrowness of our focus on the present: “Anything that happened more than a week or so ago is consigned to the dustbin of history,” writes Jacobs, who suspects our temporal bandwidth has worn unprecedentedly, perhaps dangerously, thin.

Yet the received wisdom of pop psychology, as you know, is that “living in the moment” is an excellent thing; mentally dwelling in the future or past is to be avoided, since that just means unnecessary anxiety or regret. There’s truth in that. But it’s compatible with a larger awareness of our place in the unfolding of time, as one link in a chain of ancestors and successors, stretching off to invisibility in both directions. And if you’d like to cultivate a broader bandwidth, Jacobs points out, it’s easier to turn to the past than the future. Read old books. Visit old buildings. Spend time in places that haven’t changed much with the centuries. You’ll start to get a feeling for the absurdity of what CS Lewis called “chronological snobbery” – the notion that some work of art, or anything else, must be better or more important simply because it’s happening now. From the vantage point of the future, 2019 will be no less part of a “period” than any given year of the dark ages, or the cold war, and with its own complement of delusions and assumptions that seem preposterous in hindsight.

No discussion of temporal bandwidth can avoid a mention of Donald Trump, a creature of momentary impulse who owes his power to a similar “presentist” trait in the culture at large. (Scandals are no big deal when nobody can remember last week’s.) But to fixate on him here would also be overly presentist. He, too, shall pass; what matters is what or who is coming next. Jacobs argues that a narrow temporal bandwidth blinds us to big historical changes, which tend to happen – to quote an Ernest Hemingway character on the experience of going bankrupt – “gradually, and then suddenly”. Some hugely important things are going on right now. The question is whether any of us have the slightest clue what they are.

Listen to this

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr discusses “learning to trust deep time” in a compelling episode of the On Being podcast.

[email protected]

Source: TheGuardian