I’m writing this nine days before the presidential election. This piece is due before the election but will appear six days afterwards.
When you read this, you’ll know who won. When I write this, I don’t.
Meanwhile, Superstorm Sandy is churning toward the Northeast coast, with severe weather expected inland to the Ohio Valley and as far north as way past Montreal. A huge chunk of the continent is holding its breath in expectation of terrible flooding, major power failures, and hugely disrupted lives. Nobody really knows where and how it will hit.
When you read this, you’ll know what happened. When I write this, I don’t.
By the time you read this, everything I’ve written above may seem very quaint.
Which makes me think about time and our relationship to it.
Cue the philosophical treatise? No, I’ve only got 500 or so words (and have used up 152 of them so far) but in the 348 left, it might be useful to point out the necessity of believing we know at least the short-term future — for example, my belief that I’ll send this piece in on time and it will appear on the day it is supposed to — when in fact we have absolutely no idea what will happen in even the next second. Consider my friend who a year ago cheerfully said goodbye to some visitors, stepped into her kitchen to make tea and crumpled to the ground with a massive brain hemorrhage.
Connected to this belief in the short-term future is the way we create this thing each of us calls “me.” It is as if we send out tendrils snaking their way through time, some of them (the thickest) reaching backwards, and others (not exactly slender) reaching forwards, twining together with each other and twining together with other tendrils from other people, creating the stories that are the basis of our saying, Aha! This is who I am!
Until we are caught up short, as my friend was in her kitchen, and it turns out that no, this isn’t who I am at all.
We think we are solid, but we are provisional, insubstantial as smoke. Just to get out of bed in the morning we need to predict a future, but we are fools if we believe this future will happen exactly in the way we predict.
I’m writing this a week before it’s due because next week I have other work to do, other deadlines to meet, other responsibilities to colleagues and students and family and community, all the stuff that we absolutely take for granted will happen because we think of time as a conveyor belt and our lives moving on down the line, but guess what? There’s no conveyor belt.
The past is gone, the future isn’t here, and the present is ungraspable. You can read this in the Diamond Sutra, you can read it in a lot of places, but you don’t have to read it at all. Just look clearly at your life and there it is.