The Present Monument III: Perspective

Time as succession, past and to come, . . . eternity itself, exists in present thought, is contained in the fleeting passage of the moment, so far as that passage compels the direct intuition of a thinking being. — G.L.S. Shackle

after 'Forres' by Julie Speidel

Monuments and moments are aimed at the future, launched like projectiles filled with the past. Monuments evoke a presence — a feeling of awe or admiration or mystery, a recognition of accomplishment or courage or love. Of course, no one unveils a plaque commemorating a great event yet to unfold; no country issues a postage stamp honoring a leader not yet chosen. So monuments are invariably rooted in someone or something noteworthy that has gone before. We may re-visit (or otherwise re-live) monuments in our futures, but to the extent we even think about it, their futures seem static as they idly await the next tour bus.

It is easy to imagine a monument passing through time like a pointer moving along a numbered line — reaching out to us from the negative past, threading through the zero of now, and moving beyond us to the positive future. On the surface it is simple to apply this picture to our lives: we arrive in the present carrying our past, an aggregation of memories from each successive moment that we have experienced, primed to help us deal with the future. But imagining that with each successive moment our bubble of experience grows as it moves along a time line is like studying a python’s digestion by measuring changes in the bulge of a swallowed pig. The action is not easily seen in some external frame of reference; it’s on the inside. There’s nothing wrong with observing the python, but things are probably more interesting from the pig’s perspective.

At each instant we sit in the bubble of the present, sharing it with the latest tick of the clock. We look back on life as a well-defined, if not necessarily well-liked, path leading to this instant. But we look ahead as though standing on a precipice, a jumping-off point: the range of things that could happen next and after that and again after that — the space of possibilities — is at least vast, perhaps infinite. What path will we follow through that space? As far as we know, what sets us apart from python and pig, and for that matter from plaque and postage stamp, is the very fact that we can ask the question. And what gives us our only element of control over the answer is choice. Rokelle Lerner said it succinctly and beautifully: “Choices are not isolated events on the periphery of my life. Choices are my life.” Perhaps using the perspective of the numbered line for past-present-future is not only simple but profound. Perhaps the mathematical name for the zero-point of now says it best: “origin.”

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