Now you might say, “Oh, this is just a case of a bad memory”. I don’t think so. If I am honest I have to accept that it is more realistically the ability to see things but not see them. Now fans of Jason Bourne – books or films – will remember he was trained to scan a room and see everything around him that might be pertinent to his staying alive – but for most of us it just isn’t like this. I don’t want to mention the ‘M’ word (that finishes with ‘indfulness’) because I am not into fads and fancies that give clever names to ordinary experiences, but there is nevertheless some mileage in thinking about our powers of observation and awareness.
For instance, my wife puts on a ‘tolerant face’ when we are sitting outside a cafe and I gaze across the road and mutter, “I wonder why they built those chimneys like that?” or “Do you know that guy has been staring at his laptop screen blankly without touching a key for ten minutes now? I wonder if he’s actually alive.” I do find I notice things when we’re out and about, not particularly useful things, but just things. But then my wife observes birds or clouds and things like that, which I don’t pick up on, and so as I have pondered on this, I suspect we each have different things we notice in the world around us and there are other things that just completely pass us by.
Now this brings me on to a conversation that she and me quite often have, that of worrying needlessly about whether the people down Southend High Street will notice the mark on the side of my trousers, or whether there will be whole groups of people who pass us by muttering, “My goodness, how can she possibly wear such an old anorak/cagoule/overcoat with what are obviously new shoes?” I am told there are whole bunches of people out there who are worried about their hairstyle, their height, the size of their ears, eyes or nose, or about the fact that they haven’t cleaned the car this month (I’m just waiting for the next cloudburst), or even worse, that they haven’t had a shower today. There is another series of conversations that go on in families that have elements in them such as, “You know the hall carpet is starting to look old and faded. What will the postman think?” (He has time to assess the state of your home as he hands over a parcel in the pouring rain???) Or, “You know we haven’t decorated the back bedroom for six years. Suppose we have someone to stay?” (as if the décor is going to be of prime interest to the random visitor – the last one was seven years ago!)
I may have suggested this before, but try out this exercise. Stop and think when you last went shopping. How many people’s clothes did you take note of? When you went to the Garden Centre / hairdresser / cinema / shoe shop – how many people can you remember and if anyone stood out, did it matter? Did you have deep and meaningful thoughts about that person because if not, they were just part of the wallpaper of life that you take for granted – and while we’re on that subject, think of the homes of four people that you know – do they have wallpaper or paint on the walls of their lounge/living room and what colour are the walls? Can’t remember? Don’t be surprised.
Is there a maximum number of things your brain can remember? Probably not but you do need to stimulate your memory cells to build up capacity, so for most of the time, the mundane millions of facts (even the most obvious ones) you encounter every day – the person who walked down the road opposite you, the car that drove behind you to the shops, the name of a (famous – at least to others) politician, the vapour trails in the sky, when it showered, a programme advertised on TV for next week, and so on – either pass you by or are considered by your sub-
Now I am aware that I have trod this path before (Try article 23 on the Contents page for example) because it is a fascinating path to follow. Checking back, I have hardly crossed over that previous article. I’ve also crossed the path that looks back to see what we observed of history and what we missed, but that is really a different one from this one because this is all about apprehending (what a good word!) the present.
There is a danger that crops up in modern life as many of us try to hold on to the present experience. I have in mind a comment made by someone I know, who recently went to what I suppose might be loosely called a Pop Concert, and they told of how, standing in the crowd they had a guy in front of them holding up a mobile phone on which he was recording the whole concert. He spent most of the two hours peering at the screen of his phone which surely meant his involvement and thus enjoyment of the concert must have been severely limited – all so that he could replay it at some later date – but he lost the original experience. Now I confess to being not much better, when I think about it, because whenever we go away on holiday I seem to spend most of my time clicking away on my digital camera. Am I also, I wonder, missing the experience simply to extend it in my computer archive?
So here we have this dilemma: on the one hand, too much happens to take it all in, and then on the other hand, when we try to take it in and capture it on film, we miss the actual experience. It’s a difficult world to tie down, this modern world. But did we bother about this sort of thing fifty years ago when we were younger (there I have done the nostalgic bit!), was there this same insistence of being mindful of the moment, or a capturing the moment? Did it matter that so much passed us by? Does it matter today?
Is this same neurosis what is behind so much social media, this fear of missing what is going on? Does it matter what you did this morning, or my grandchild achieved at swimming class? Yes, all good valid things to know about but will I be a lesser husband, father, grandparent, friend etc. because I start cutting back on the number of Facebook notifications I get from people round the world. Yes, I love seeing how this or that family are developing but I’ve noticed an odd offshoot from this recently: when I eventually meet them face to face, I know all about them already so we don’t have catch-
So where have we been? From missing things about those closest to us, to not worrying about what random people in the street will think about what I’m wearing, to not noticing the décor in a friend’s house, to being concerned about all the things I don’t notice, to trying to capture the present and in so doing losing it, to the absence of this in the past and finally to the neurosis that social media seems to create. Do I want to achieve anything by writing this? Not particularly, but it may mean I take notice a little more of what my wife is wearing and I may cut back on my Facebook notifications, both of which are possibly good things, and anyway it’s fun trawling around in these shallows to see what comes up.
A final thought. I suspect that the way we respond to these sorts of questions will have something to do with our temperament and background as well as things life will have told us are important. So some of us, peering down the kaleidoscope of temperament, will be totally laid back and yawn, trying to be civilized by suppressing the comment, “Who cares anyway?” while others of us – the ones who can cite ‘important’ facts about all the Star Wars films, or tell of the last ten books they have read in the past two months, or who can list off every US president – are thinking, “Get on with it. Finish off this article, for goodness sake! I’ve got so many things I’ve got to see, read, experience, and achieve before tea! And I’ve got to check my inbox and my Facebook and my…..”
So, wherever you fit, enjoy the moment and don’t get stressed by what you almost certainly will miss of it. And don’t let anyone (least of all me) make you feel guilty that you are missing out on life, because you will be in some measure, because your name is not Jason Bourne or Superman or whoever else these figments of the imagination are! Let’s finish off, as we usually do with a few quotes from others on this subject.
“Every moment before this one depends on this one.” ― Jonathan Safran Foer
“Be happy in the moment, that's enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.” ― Mother Teresa
“Every moment is a moment of decision, and every moment turns us inexorably in the direction of the rest of our lives.” ― Mary Balogh, Simply Perfect
“I was in the parking lot, with the key in the car, and I thought to myself: If this is my last night on earth, would I rather spend it at a business meeting or with this woman? I ran across the parking lot, asked her if she'd have dinner with me. She said yes, we walked into town, and we've been together ever since.” ― Steve Jobs
“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” ― Leo Tolstoy