from Essays After Montaigne
Those which still accuse men for ever gaping after future things, and go about to teach us, to take hold of present fortunes, and settle our selves upon them, as having no hold of that which is to come; yea much lesse than we have of that which is already past, touch and are ever harping upon the commonest humane error, if they dare call that an error, to which Nature her selfe, for the service of the continuation of her worke, doth address us, imprinting (as it doth many others) this false imagination in us, as more jealous of our actions, than of our knowledge. We are never in our selves, but beyond. Feare, desire, and hope, draw us ever towards that which is to come, and remove our sense and consideration from that which is, to amuse us on that which shall be, yea when we shall be no more.
Rational, materialist writers through the ages have counseled that perspective of indifference to that which has not, may not, or will not be experienced as a remedy for fear of death and other complaints, from Lucretius (whom Montaigne quotes in this same essay):
Therefore death to us
Is nothing, nor concerns us in the least,
Since nature of mind is mortal evermore.
And just as in the ages gone before
We felt no touch of ill, when all sides round
To battle came the Carthaginian host,
And the times, shaken by tumultuous war,
Under the aery coasts of arching heaven
Shuddered and trembled, and all humankind
Doubted to which the empery should fall
By land and sea, thus when we are no more,
When comes that sundering of our body and soul
Through which we're fashioned to a single state,
Verily naught to us, us then no more,
Can come to pass, naught move our senses then--
No, not if earth confounded were with sea,
And sea with heaven.
To Marcel Proust (clearly a reader of Montaigne):
Our love of life is no more than an old affair that we do not know how to discontinue. Its strength lies in its permanence. But death, which interrupts it, will cure us of our desire for immortality.
"Staying in the moment" and "taking it one day at a time" are cliches integral to all manner of spiritual and emotional solace, from addiction recovery to Buddhist mindfulness. In David Foster Wallace's massive meditation on sadness and addiction, Infinite Jest, Don Gately, a recovering addict trying to endure the pain of a serious gunshot wound without the aid of anything stronger than a Tylenol, reaches this same conclusion:
He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. And the projected future fear... It's too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it's as of now real... He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What's unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen... He hadn't quite gotten this before now, how it wasn't just the matter of riding out cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.
In the moments of my own deepest unhappiness, I have tried to keep that passage in mind, to use that perspective. It has worked much better for me with physical suffering (appendicitis, laser eye surgery, root canal, etc.) than with emotional suffering. I suspect it's harder to gain that view of emotional suffering because that would essentially mean finding a way to give the mind distance from itself, as opposed to giving it distance from the body. The inability to achieve that distance is pithily illustrated by Michael Cunningham in The Hours with this exchange on a windowsill between Richard, facing the delirium caused by AIDS, and Clarissa:
He says, "I don't know if I can face this. You know. The party and the ceremony, and then the hour after that, and the hour after that."
"You don't have to go to the party. You don't have to go to the ceremony. You don't have to do anything at all."
"But there are still the hours aren't there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there's another. I'm so sick."
For me, this idea of withdrawing our affections within ourselves in the present moment is a sort of unified theory of the fields of philosophy, theology, psychology, and even physics. I'm personally familiar with the therapeutic benefits of such an approach (having developed my own homegrown mantra of "Right here, right now, everything is fine"), but it can also be seen spiritually as the severing of attachments that is the basis of enlightenment in Buddhism; the pure pleasure of existing sought by the Epicureans; the "self-coherence" sought by the Stoics; the humble submission to faith in the inscrutable will of the Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and so on. And this view gains scientific credibility from Julian Barbour's work on the non-existence of time. As he concludes in The End of Time:
People often ask me what are the implications of the non-existence of time. What will it mean for everyday life? I think we cannot say... At the personal level, thinking about these things has persuaded me that we should cherish the present.