WHEN we hear a new melody, the notes, as they come one by one, mean comparatively little to the unaccustomed ear; but with greater familiarity each note is attended alike by the memory of the last note, and by the anticipation of that which is to come. This suggests how much the richness of the present hour owes to the memory. In fact, when we consider the temporal nonentity of the actual present: that, in truth, the present and duration have nothing or all to do with one another; that the present moment lasts forever, and yet appears but as a point in the historical series of events; it seems strange that so much stress has been laid upon the importance of the present, as opposed to the past, and the potential present, or future.
We are told that ’time is fleeting,’ ‘the present is our all,’ 'there is no time like the present.' ‘Do it now!’ Thus in exhortation and precept we are urged to improve the shining hour, with a certain disregard of the fact that many hours do not, and in the nature of things, cannot shine. For it is evident that ‘the present is our all’ only in the sense that the present has been lasting quietly along ever since time began, and will continue to last forever. But in the meanwhile, in the general haste to utilize this precious moment before its imaginary departure, there is a tendency to retrogress to a primitive biological condition where one time is like another,and the present loseits changing and dramatic quality. In the rush and roar of life, the lights fade, the din is ceaseless, and we get as used to a series of shocks and changes as we do to a more tranquil passage of time. Contrasting with this life is that in out-ofthe-way towns, where, as often in the South and West, the great event of the day is the arrival of the daily train. Everybody is on the street, or railroad platform if there is one. Boys and girls, old men and women, come out cheerily like birds on a spring morning, and when the train is gone, the whole town sinks back into dullness for the rest of the day.
Such conditions are more characteristic of all life than we realize. Much of life must necessarily he spent in waiting, and if one reflects upon the daily occurrences of his existence, he can pick many a moment when the doctrine that the present is all is singularly lacking in significance. While he is brushing his teeth, or when he has got into an icy bed, and is wondering whether his circulation will prove adequate to stave off a momentarily threatening demise, a man stakes his soul, not on the present, but on the future. For the football player the last ten seconds before the kick-off of his big game, for the speaker waiting to be called upon for his maiden speech, the present moment has become almost completely subordinated to what it is about to produce.
Any given moment, like any note in music, derives its character from being a link in a chain, and the value of each moment is enhanced for the individual who enjoys it in proportion to his hold upon the past, and the clearness with which he foresees the future. Not less in pain than in joy can the power of the past and the future over the present be seen. When we know a pain is growing less, it is by that fact abated further. If we could know all pains to be like the momentary discords in music, which resolve themselves into more and more beautiful harmonies, we should endure them in a religious spirit impossible to one who cannot understand his pain or fears that it will become worse.
Yet clearly in one sense the present is all, and the emphasis laid upon the transiency of time has its use; for the point which is really emphasized is the importance of the rate at which we live. Our expenditure of energy, our power of work can be improved only by ceaseless effort during the hours of activity. There is no inconsistency between a wholesome devotion to the present moment, and a realization that almost any present moment is a trifling affair. One moment is not equal in value to another. Some hours are far better than the rest. Except rarely, the most precious resources of our consciousness lie outside of the present day and hour; and as the largest proportion of the visible world by many million times lies out of our sight at any one time, and always must, so also all but the most infinitesimal part of our lives lies at a greater or less distance from our consciousness; and, normally, all that has pained or consoled, stirred us or lulled us, lies asleep in the memory far away.
The whole subject of time is paradoxical and obscure. There is much in the simplest consideration of these questions which metaphysics is powerless to solve. In any case the past must be reckoned with as having some kind of actuality. In addition to the fact that there has been a past, in a sense, there still is one. ‘Shakespeare is dead’ is as valid an assertion as ‘Kipling is alive.’ The past is actual in another way than by virtue of memory; rather it is by virtue of this actuality that memory exists. Whatever has been, is as absolutely discoverable, could the perfect means be devised, as any present fact such as the topography of the Pamirs. Thus there is a larger existence stretching away in all directions from the little present which we pet and coddle.
In truth the present moment itself is enormously complex, extending as it does through the whole of space. The variety of points of view in one village, or one household even, indicates the richness of the life the world’s present moment holds, which yet goes on at all times virtually outside the experience of any one individual’s mind. There are many directions, besides spatial directions, in which consciousness stretches away from the centre we call self. In the same city scientists may work almost side by side with artists, and scarcely have any hint each of the others' thoughts; and what do the feverish ups and downs of Wall Street mean to either? Tastes and occupations wall us apart. If we could induce our neighbors to express their own thoughts with vividness, they might well carry us further afield than years of life circumscribed within our own narrow boundaries could do, or perhaps wake long-forgotten memories, or moods of which for many years we have caught no hint. To each one his own past life is a storehouse which he has not the wit and power to explore; but by the clue of sympathy we find ourselves upon the borders of a still richer region, — namely, the existing consciousness of other people. The voices, the faces of foreigners how often indicate perceptions and impressions alien to one’s own understanding. There is a flavor in their lives which we cannot taste. Nor do we ever quite know to what extent we become one with them by study and travel.
Yet these considerations would perhaps be of slight significance if it were not that our powers may be developed, — powers, vital to us, of tapping reservoirs of experience not at first recognized as part of our resources. The circle of circumstances which hems us in can be pierced, our sympathies may become broader, and we may renew or relive the better elements of our own past.
Strange mental processes sometimes recall past impressions with a vividness wholly unbelievable at ordinary times, and our knowledge of how far these hints may be trusted seems hopelessly inadequate. To take them at their face value we could easily believe the possibility of an approximately perfect memory. The richness of the world is forgotten by the world. When a state of mind upon which we based a conviction is gone, we do not know how much is lost of the character and flavor which explained it. In the sphere of philosophy a haze seems to have spread across the higher mountain ranges of thought, and veiled the great peaks. But when these rare moments of clearer weather come, the striking feature of this mental geography is the infinite numbers of directions in which we can look. There is a profusion of paths which we are free to take in the happy hours of intellectual liberty.
But in this little present we take ourselves so seriously. The whole visual world is made known to us by vibrations that range in wave-length from about four one-thousandths to about ten one-thousandths of a millimetre. The great systems displayed to us by astronomy are more remarkable for the slightness of the evidence by which they are recognized than for the magnitude disclosed. The possibilities which are concealed from us in the field of radiation alone are stupendous. We are like bubbles on the crest of a deepsea wave. Each one perceives a hemisphere which is his world. The scientist studies the ripples which jostle the bubbles and form a substratum for existence; while religious men have perceived the wind which causes wave, ripple, and bubble alike, and blows the bubbles along. But over this sea upon which we move, the mist is often so thick, that we have little to guide us but greater or smaller waves passing beneath us; as it is with a boatman in a fog, judging, by the ground swell, the direction of the open sea.