Welcome to the Eternal Now
Uncertainty feels a whole lot like a scary time loop
It seems that just about every self-help tenet emphasizes the pursuit of presence. “Value the moment,” say the Zen devotees. “Practice mindfulness,” our psychotherapists tell us from opposite the couch. “Play the role you find yourself in,” says Stoic philosophy, by way of Epictetus. Being fully engaged in the present, the wisdom goes, is the path to transcendence. Life is fuller and less clouded by worry when we stay focused on the now.
But in practice, when tremendous uncertainty makes planning for the future moot — and there’s nothing but the present to pay attention to — it feels less than transcendent.
When New Yorker writer Helen Rosner tweeted in mid-May that the weeks of social distancing had imparted a sense of “infinite presence,” the sentiment struck a viral chord. “No future plans, no anticipation of travel or shows or events or celebrations,” she wrote. “It’s an endless today, never tomorrow.” The feeling? Not great.
Despite the gradual “reopening” of U.S. states and cities around the world, the sense of a never-ending now isn’t exactly lifting. Much remains uncertain — everything, really, about the near-term shape of daily life: Will there be a second wave of infection? Will someone I love get sick, or will I? When can I go on vacation? When will there be a vaccine? Will life ever feel normal again?
And then, of course, many of us wonder about the trajectory of the current uprising against anti-Black police violence and the structures that uphold White supremacy. Will White allies and non-Black people of color continue to pull their weight in the movement for racial justice? Will the demonstrably broken institutions of today be replaced with a more equitable system of community-minded support? The uncertainty compounds.
Why the infinite now is so unnerving
Caroline Welch, the CEO and co-founder of the Mindsight Institute and author of The Gift of Presence: A Mindfulness Guide for Women, explains that the human brain has evolved over millions of years to detect patterns in what is happening in the present, which then allow us to anticipate what’s likely to happen next. Planning for the future is a…