We live in a cultural moment wherein “living in the present” is the clarion call for leading a richer, fuller life. While the intention here is often good — living in the present frees us from worry about the future and guilt over the past — we live in the most extreme version of this vision of the good life. This is what Alan Jacobs calls “presentism” in a recent article in The Guardian on “temporal bandwidth.”
Right now, we are only capable of knowing and thinking about what is happening at the present moment. Everything we think, say, or do, must be in response to whatever crisis is happening at the given moment. As I type this, my Twitter timeline is filled with outrage at the Trump administration’s unjust treatment of families that illegally enter the southwest U.S. border. And rightly so! Politicians on the left and right recognize that separating parents from their children, regardless of the legality of their entrance into the country, is nothing less than immoral. This is a major problem that needs to be addressed (and, frankly, has needed to be addressed for a long time), but there will be something else next week, and the week after, and the week after that.
In other words, we no longer just “live in the present” — we are presentists. There is nothing but the present, and anything we say or do, for our words and actions to matter right now, must be related to extinguishing whatever dumpster fire is on people’s minds (ignoring the fact that there are one million other dumpster fires in the background). There is a solution to this problem, but it’s not an easy one. It will make us look uncaring and irrelevant, and will potentially send us to the margins of the public square, if we’re even included in it at all.
We must back away. We must expand our view of humanity, of time, of the world and its history and future. To do so means to read old books and simply sit and think about them, about the world that existed before we did, and the world that will exist after we are gone. It means, perhaps, not responding on Twitter to the latest outrage — not because we do not care, but because we are aware that the truly caring thing may be to continue to cultivate a life that is lived betwixt the past and the future, and that culminates in the present. As Jacobs says,
To read old books is to get an education in possibility for next to nothing. Watching the latest social media war break out, I often recall Grace Kelly’s character in High Noon, a Quaker pacifist, saying: “I don’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live”… The suspicion that there’s got to be some better way has the welcome effect of suppressing the thoughtless, kneejerk reflexion that is a byproduct of our age.
Rejecting presentism, even if it looks uncaring to the outside world, can be a more nuanced, thoughtful way of caring for those around us, those experiencing oppression, those who are lonely and anxious. It can also help us to rightfully situate our present moment in the ongoing history of the world.