I’ve been attempting to learn Spanish off and on the past couple of years with varied success. One of the things I’ve done is to participate in a Spanish lunch group at work. A colleague with a passion for the language generously teaches from a beginner book on Mondays, and we slowly make our way through the material. The other day we were discussing upcoming curriculum, and it was decided that we would wait to learn future and past tenses of verbs. “We live in the present,” our instructor explained, so it’s most useful to learn that tense extensively before moving on to others.
That statement struck me. We live in the present. While there is a lot of practical truth to what he said, I thought back to experiences getting to know native Spanish speakers. After a few factual exchanges of “I live in the United States” and “I am twenty-six,” conversations almost always turned toward the past. Where were you born? Where have you traveled? What did you study in school? Our past experiences are such a key component to who we are that they naturally creep into conversations about the present. Furthermore, when you get to know someone on a deeper level, the language almost always turns toward the future. What are your dreams? Where do you want to be in ten years? We live in the present, but the past and future are perhaps even bigger parts of who we are. This is true, of course, not only when speaking in foreign languages, but any time two people are getting to know each other.
These thoughts reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Blaise Pascal in his book, Pensées:
We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.
Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus, we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.
While Pascal takes it to the extreme, he has a point; the past forms us into who we are today and our futures pull us toward what we will become. It’s a double-edged sword, and we must live on the blade, in the present. It’s difficult, but the truth is that the present is the only thing we can change. I challenge you to take note of your conversations and thoughts the next couple of days and see just how much “we live in the present.”