I have realized recently (among many other things that I have realized) how difficult it is for me to remain in the present moment. I’m not really a future-oriented person. I am not worried too terribly much about what will happen tomorrow or next week or next year—aside some fairly significant things like whether I can ever afford to stop working or if I, instead, I’ll need to retire at age 95.
But I spend a lot of time thinking about the next five minutes, or the next ten. Maybe even the next hour. Not usually much farther than that. But I do it compulsively. Every minute, it seems, is spent planning the next five.
Some of this is my job. It’s just how teaching works. And some of it just how I am.
But if living in the next five minutes from now is a retreat from the present moment, then it isn’t hard to figure out why. The present has so often been unbearable. The past was even more so.
In the aftermath of trauma—whether you end up with post-traumatic stress or complex post-traumatic stress or a dissociative disorder or some other diagnosis—the past is never the past. It intrudes.
It may be easy for someone who hasn’t experienced this to think, “But the present is fine. The present is okay. Nothing bad is happening now. All those things are over and done with.”
But that isn’t how it is for us. Bad things are happening now. Intrusive thoughts are happening now. Intense sensory or emotional flashbacks are happening now. And what is going on in my head that I have no control over is a part of the present, just as much as my current job is and where I live. Maybe more so, because you never get away from your head. But I leave both my home and my job nearly every day.
So there has been an unbearable present to manage. Of all of the possible ways of coping with an unbearable present, constantly planning what I need to do next isn’t really the worst of them. I didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol or self-harming, destructive relationships, or arguing with my bosses and getting fired. I could have done considerably worse.
But as the trauma symptoms recede I find I no longer need to plan so much. I can simply be in the present moment much more of the time. Not completely. Not all the time. But sometimes.
I lived in the present moment getting ready for work this morning and so I didn’t stack up in my mind the next 10 items on my to-do list and I forgot to put on deodorant. But it wasn’t a hot day, so I suppose it worked out ok.
Still. I can more often leave the future to the future and the past to the past and live right here in the present. What I find interesting is the effect this is having on my self-esteem.
Self-esteem is often conflated with self-image. We think of the regard we have for ourselves as largely tied up with what we think of ourselves—whether we can see our good qualities or not, and whether we measure up to a particular yardstick that we believe tells us we are “good enough.”
However, self-esteem is also about being. What is it like to be us from moment to moment? When being yourself feels like torture, it’s hard to think much of yourself. It helps a lot when being yourself feels a little more okay.
In those times when I am able to simply be in the present moment, some of those present moments are pretty nice. Nothing special. Just nice.
I find I like myself now.