Confine Your Unhappiness to the Present
Don’t let the past and the future disturb you today more than they should
There’s a story of a man who stepped on a nail
It was many years ago and from what I recall, he was a construction worker. On some random day, as he was walking through his work site, he felt himself step on something. When he looked down, he saw a nail poked through his boot. He immediately fell in agony and was screaming out in pain. This day was not turning out well for him.
It wasn’t long before the ambulance came over and rushed him to the hospital. They did their best to keep him calm, but the only thing to relieve his pain was an examination at the hospital. After the doctors removed his boot, they learned that the nail had pierced through, but it had just missed his foot and instead went through his boot. All that agony and pain came from him thinking the nail went through his foot but it didn’t.
This story was one of few which changed the way we understand our ability to experience pain. Yes, much of it may be physical pain from some trauma, but a lot of it can be mentally induced — our minds are powerful enough to bring us paralyzing pain even if we experience no physical trauma.
How amazing is that?
I was thinking about this story as I read through the closing remarks of one of Seneca’s letters where he said that no one confines their unhappiness to the present. It didn’t seem clear at first, but he then described it using a predator and prey, and said that the prey only worries and fears about the predator when it’s being hunted down, but until then, it goes about its life not fearing what happened or what may happen.
But we humans are different. We carry with us fear, regret and worries from the past and future which makes us unhappy in the present. I know that humans and animals are different, but Seneca’s words hold true in our everyday lives.
Think about when your heart was broken, how does that affect the relationships you build today? Or what about when you were shut down for voicing your opinion, how does that help you stand up for yourself today? Think about your failures, anxieties and regrets — do any of them make you happy today?
The answer is no, they don’t
They are discouraging and if we never tended to these parts of us, we would still believe them to be nails poking through us.
And so we shy away from relationships or confrontations to save ourselves from disappointment. We remain silent instead of voicing our opinion for fear of being shut down. We hold ourselves back to avoid feeling that terrible feeling that made us feel sort of worthless and disappointed in ourselves.
But is that the way things are meant to be? Is there no remedy for this?
Well, the truth is that it depends on us. We can choose to live like this for the rest of our lives or we can find our way through this mud.
If we look back at what Seneca says, we should confine our unhappiness to the present, or at least try our best to. We should do our best to not be lured away by the thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow that bring us unhappiness today. If there’s a valid reason to be unhappy today, let it be for the moment alone before we go on with our lives.
But does this mean that we should ignore the regret and fear we feel?
Well, no — at least I don’t think so. The reason these thoughts and feelings come up is because they’re unresolved and we need to tend to them before we can move on with our lives.
If we regret what we said yesterday in our angered state, we should see what we can do about this going forward to make sure we don’t do this again, to sort of earn our forgiveness. If we are worried about something happening tomorrow, we should let this help us better prepare for it with the time we spend today. The same holds true for any regret or fear we hold.
Our thoughts are not meant to make us unhappy, they are meant to help us understand what we need to resolve in ourselves so that we don’t continue being unhappy today. If we latch onto them and identify ourselves with them, then it’s difficult for us to be happy today. But if we find an honest way to resolve them, then it’s difficult for us to be unhappy today.
If we find a way to resolve them, then we will learn, grow and improve ourselves
After all, it is our responsibility to see that we are neither prey nor predator but we are the observer, we are the ones to step in and bring peace to the disorder we feel within before it consumes us. We are the ones to see that there are no nails or daggers poking through us and the only things that are hurting us are our own thoughts.
So face your regrets, worries and fears. Speak with them. Let them help you resolve all that was left unresolved in your heart and soul, let them help bring you back to the present because this is where your true happiness will always live.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Invest In Your Existence, Kind Reader,