My astronomy professor once turned our classroom lights off and slowly moved a laser pointer (a technological novelty in those horse-drawn carriage days) from left to right across the dark wall. The red dot represented the present as it advances into the future. The idea, I think, was like a cosmic Hop-on, Hop-off bus tour: everyone alive right now just happens to be together on board that little floating dot. Behind and ahead is vast darkness. We are cosmic eyeblinks. I recognized this idea again a few years later, when The Flaming Lips sang, “Do you realize we’re floating in space?” and “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” proving, I guess, that I pretty much could have skipped astronomy class (I kid! I kid!).
These things struck a nerve in me. When I was younger, I used to wonder whether more time in the universe had elapsed before I was born, or whether more time would elapse after I died. I was a weird kid. But mostly when I was young, I burned with romantic ambitions to do and to make things. Mostly these things had to do with making art, but I suppose it is much the same for young people fascinated by science, politics, computers, business, sports and so on. I was so filled with these desires that sometimes it amazed me that people next to me on the bus couldn’t feel it radiating from me or that I wasn’t arrested for the fearful insurgency that my body felt barely able to contain.
Perhaps that’s another way of saying that I felt guilty about these feelings. Because the funny thing was that for all this ambition, rarely did I do anything to realize my dreams. Years later, I had another moment of recognition when I read the philosopher Bloch, who observes how easy it is for the young to talk about creating, but how hard it is for the young to create. And that’s the question I really want to address: why is it so difficult for some of us to do the things we want to do when we are young, even when we seem to have world enough and time to do them?
I think the answer lies in the red dot. Although as a young person I was filled with ambition, the reason I never got much done is that I did not yet appreciate time. Time is an acquired knowledge, and not everything about acquiring it is pleasant. You kind of catch on to time when people you love die, but also when you have children and watch them grow, or when, like the poet Borges, you can write a line like this: “haber envejecido en tantos espejos“ (“to have grown old in so many mirrors”). But when you’ve only just torn off the cellophane from a fresh pack of cards and you’re still dealing out diamonds from the top of the deck, it feels like the fat stock of days will never dwindle. And that’s the unproductive illusion.
A Buddhist proverb says that we are like fish swimming in ever less water. Day to day, it’s not so easy to recognize the way the water evaporates. The present feels like a spacious pool whose hours we swim through with such ease. Yesterday never seems to get too far away from us, the next day is never too far ahead of us, and any day seems much like another. But every so often you stop and realize that suddenly you are in a new epoch of your life, and the last one, which seemed so present and so accessible for so long, is now closed. These are the tricks that time plays. But maybe we play along because it helps us to forget that the water is running out.
So I’m saying this: distrust romantic ambition. There will never be a time when you are swept up in the gale of inspiration that magically carries you to the end of your goals. So don’t wait for it. I’m also saying this: “seize the day,” but without any romantic inflection. Maybe it’s better to say seize the deck. It’s stacked against you, and the house is going to win. Realize that the cards are limited and play each one carefully and deliberately. Cultivate daily habits. Near the end of his life, Michelangelo apparently told his apprentice “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.” Nietzsche wrote that the philosopher or artist who has really put himself into his work can take “malicious joy” when he sees his body and mind being broken down by time because it is like watching a thief cracking a safe that you know has already been safely emptied of its treasures. Life is a breakneck, deadly race to somehow let the best things inside of us out through our thin skins and thick brains and into the world, where they might do someone some good.
If you work daily, it doesn’t matter if you have a bad day or a string of them. Some inspired days yield nothing. Some days you already feel defeated but you push on and maybe have the big breakthrough. It’s unpredictable, uneven, infuriating and unmasterable. There is no shortcut. The good news is that all that is really required from you is to be there, working, doing a little bit at a time, each day. The magic can’t happen if you’re not working, even for just an hour at a time. Do it because the unstructured life is not worth living. Because every once in awhile you’ll be rewarded even though you’ve done nothing to deserve it but having persevered. And do it because it’s the best chance of accomplishing all the things you want. Just not all at once.