J. M. Pressley
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Anticipation and Anxiety

Every once in a while, my day-to-day life slows down sufficiently to the point where I can start piecing together thoughts. Sometimes I can even get a coherent train of thought going; at times like that, I normally find myself writing something (there's no telling when or even if it's going to happen again, after all). And sometimes, albeit rarely, I find myself on the brink of epiphany. This was one of those rare times, when I had enough time to think and just enough synapses fired off to get me thinking about time, getting older, and how we find ourselves ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road wondering where the hell all that time went.

Probably the thing that set it all off is my wife attempting to wring an idea out of me about a birthday present. In just less than a month, you see, I'll be turning 37 years old. Not a bad age, certainly not an age preceded by the term "ripe old age of," but another step closer to 40. And I'm not always sure how it is that I went from 25 to 37 so much more quickly than when I went from 13 to 25. And that got me to thinking more about it, and then it hit me.

We get older because time passes. We age because of anticipation and anxiety while time passes.

The problem is that time compresses for us as we get older. I know I've felt it, and pretty much everyone else I know feels it. You ask anyone older than thirty if time seems to be going by faster as they get older, and odds are that they will say yes, absolutely. The day seems a lot longer when you're a kid. I just can't believe it's taken me this long to figure it out, but I've got a pretty strong notion now as to why that is.

The answer came from my dog. No, not like Son of Sam, just from observation. My wife and I are the proud owners of one of the laziest dogs on the planet. He has two twenty-minute energy spurts per day generally, and they both revolve around feeding time. The rest of the day? Laying down in a variety of positions around the house, usually involving one or more throw pillows. And I'm fairly certain that this dog has no abstract notion whatsoever of time. For, much like a child, our dog lives in the immediate present tense. At the moment, I am hungry, so I shall jump on and off the bed and make whiney noises until Mom or the man who shares her house decides to get up and fix my breakfast. That is as far in the future as that dog thinks. He's certainly not thinking, And then, maybe around fifteen minutes later, I think I shall park myself on the couch for the next ten hours. He is utterly in the moment.

Children aren't that much more inclined to reflect upon the future. But that's where the kernel sprouts. For me as a child, it was when I grew old enough to appreciate that certain boxes of cereal contained a prize at the bottom. Instead of thinking about enjoying a nice bowl of Captain Crunch for what it was, I began thinking past that bowl; once that cereal was gone, I'd have me a brand new decoder ring. Then I realized that I could fish around through the cereal and get the prize immediately—that is, if Mom wasn't looking—and I was back to living in that blissful state of unanticipation that only children and madmen can truly enjoy.

But then I became aware that at least two days a year, I was guaranteed to see presents. And there is where, for most of us, the trouble really starts. This combines a keen awareness of time ticking down with some sort of a reward promised when the right time comes. Christmas is the worst. At some early age, we start looking past the day-to-day moments, instead looking forward to getting past them toward a finite end; with Christmas, this has evolved into an inexorable countdown of shopping days that has not been helped by the tendency of retailers to begin advertising earlier each year. At this level, we're actually trying to speed up our perception of time to get to that prize a little quicker. Unfortunately, life is not a box of Captain Crunch into which we can plunge a hand and bypass the process altogether. So, we learn to pass the time however we can while looking ahead to the reward.

From that point on, it is an anticipatory cycle of life.

We're always looking down the road, whether it's finishing school, getting through another work day, or simply trying to figure out where the next meal is going to come from. On any given day, I find it difficult not to skip mentally ahead of the moment as a relief from the omnipresent, crushing reality of it all; there are few of us, I'll warrant, that would enter into a 4:00 meeting not thinking about how much of a relief it will be at 5:00 when that meeting ends and we can just go home. Or perhaps, like most of us in the working world, you find yourself with a check in hand at the end of the pay period thinking to yourself, this money's already spent, but that next paycheck's going to be all mine. Whatever the moment of process that we're in—mainly because the mundane responsibilities of life consist of many things in which we have little interest or we flat-out dislike—we have a tendency to use looking ahead as a defense mechanism to make the time go by faster. We just want to get to the end of whatever we're doing. That leaves small room for living in the moment, much less enjoying the moments as they go by.

There's a lot of people in this world that can't enjoy life. I'm not talking about simple workaholics, either; pick your favorite third-world battle zone and imagine living there. People anticipate things both good and bad, and that anticipation causes a certain amount of anxiety. Some have more anxiety, and some have less. But because we've trained ourselves at some point to skip ahead of the moment to some imagined outcome, or because we're bored, impatient, or fretful about the things to come, we just want to get to the end—at which point there's always something else to anticipate, whether we do it with eagerness or dread. And so the cycle continues.

That's a big reason why I spend so much time on creative pursuits. When I'm writing or playing music, I'm more often than not as completely in the moment as I'm going to get. I'm not thinking, Jesus, can I just get through this song? or the sooner I get finished writing this essay, the happier I'll be. In music and writing, I overwhelmingly enjoy the process, the moment-to-moment experience, every bit as much as I enjoy having a finished product. Or, back when I was in college with a basketball hoop nearby and time on my hands, I used to just go outside for a while and shoot buckets; because I wasn't particularly good at it, shooting hoops took nearly all my concentration while I was doing it, and it helped to clear my mind.

The moral to all this? Take the time to enjoy life occasionally as it happens, rather than simply waiting around for things to come to pass. Otherwise, it's way too easy to miss the experiences that are happening around you while looking for that elusive next experience beyond the horizon. And that, my friend, is exactly how you find yourself a decade older wondering where that ten years went. It's not the time that will kill you. It's what you do with it that will.

Or, as Shakespeare put it in Richard II, "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me." (V, ii). Ciao, baby.

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