Then and now

15 May 2015

WE ARE told to live in the present. So what do we do with our past?

I visited a private school, and, although there was much that was determinedly new, the past was everywhere. At the end of one corridor was a list of head boys from the 19th century onwards (with head girls gate-crashing the male party in recent years). In a corner of the waiting room was a cabinet of trophies, including an under-15s hockey trophy from 1963, and the Cross Country cup, in need of a polish, from 1971.

On the staircase were rows of old headmasters, painted in oil in their academic robes, while in a further dark corner was another board recording the winners of the House Football Competition down the years to 1910. Important information?

And, as I dwell on former times, I am reminded of another private school I visited, where the chapel walls still record the battles fought by alumni of the school on behalf of the British Empire. Maybe these things are only noticed by visitors; but past things do appear to be treasured here. The under-15s hockey tournament in 1963 is held to be significant in some manner.

We compare this passion for the past with the call to be present, well exemplified by the Zen painting kit. It looks very normal. You take your brush, dip it into the water, and then paint an image on the board provided. Your creation is there before your eyes, as clear as day, but not for long; for the image fades as the board dries, until there is nothing.

You then reflect a while, dip the brush in the water again, paint something else, gaze on it - and then watch as that, too, disappears.

The message is the impermanence of things. Whether you perceive your painting as good or bad is of no consequence; neither does it matter whether it is a disturbing image or a pleasant one. You merely breathe it away as the image fades . . . a masterpiece of letting go. There are no old headmasters on the staircase in the Zen school.

The past and present are not at war, but their relationship can be rocky. The unexamined life, which leaves motive and true feeling beneath the surface, cannot be present to this moment any more than a boulder can float. A life waterlogged by the unexplored past will prefer nostalgia, future planning, cynicism, confusion, an information-binge, distraction -anything but this fresh and vulnerable now.

To live presently is to live aware of our past, the enjoyable and the difficult, clear-eyed about its legacy in our lives, without being held or defined by it. We can still enjoy our photos and videos, although perhaps hold them ever more lightly. The past is stale bread; the future is no bread; the present is fresh bread. Choices, choices.

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