The Moment figures prominently in a lot of the stories we tell ourselves and each other about how to live a good life—we always seem to be at our best when we’re seizing the moment, living in the moment, appreciating the moment, or some other variation on the theme. “Be more present in the moment” has been permanently etched on my mental to-do list since at least college some time, but it’s only very recently that I’ve begun to fully come to terms with what that means.
I was first introduced to the concept of “choice points” at a statewide organizer training on the Obama campaign in 2008, when I wrote my Story of Self for the first time. I went on to design and teach a workshop on Marshall Ganz’s public narrative framework to members of the general public when I worked for the Mayor’s Office, but until last week sometime I’d never really moved beyond a fairly traditional way of thinking about them. Where I used to see choice points as the major decisions I’ve made in my live that have gotten me to where I am today, I’ve very recently come to realize that when I made them, many of the most significant choices of my life were indistinguishable from all of the little choices I make every day. That realization reminded me of a great blog post by a friend earlier this year about the importance of “staying in choice,” recognizing the omnipresence of choice in our lives and owning the heightened sense of personal agency that comes with that.
The realization came to me in a very specific moment, as epiphanes often do. The specifics don’t really matter; the important part is that I was faced with a clear but seemingly minor choice, I thought about it and—logically, I thought—decided on a course of action in the moment that I immediately regretted as soon as the moment was over. In going back and thinking about it afterwards and discussing the matter with a couple of good friends, it became clear to me that I’d fallen victim to fear masquerading as logic.
I’m generally pretty good about moving towards my fears whenever I can see them—my mental image is of me walking up with a big smile on my face and introducing myself to someone I don’t know at a party—but this was a new line of thought for me. In this particular case I realized after the fact that my underlying fear was of the social consequences of my actions, but it made me stop and think about all of the other subconscious decisions I make every day without even recognizing that they’re choices, and all of the conscious decisions I make without realizing that I’m making them out of fear.
And it’s not always fear of doing something. If I had to guess, I would say that there have been more things in my life in the last five years that I’ve done because I’m afraid of not doing them than there have been that I haven’t done because I’m afraid of doing them. There are still plenty of both, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just starting to dawn on me that fear of missing out (FOMO) is more prevalent in my life than I’d thought.
I’ve always thought of FOMO as being specifically tied to events and activities, and in that area I think I’ve actually reached a pretty good equilibrium. Where I have a long way to go is in reacting to the moment in front of me as it actually exists, rather than to the path that I think might exist at some point in the future based on my reaction to whatever I’m faced with. I’m often so afraid of missing out on the different imaginary versions of the future I paint for myself in my head that I allow that fear to impact the way I live my life in the present.
I’ve gotten really good at moment-washing—telling myself I’m doing all those things with The Moment that we all know we’re supposed to do when in reality I’m reacting to what might end up happening at some point in the future rather than what’s right in front of me. To put it in improv terms (and it’s amazing how directly life correlates to improv), I still spend a lot of time trying to steer the scene where I think it should go instead of truly “yes—and!” ing my scene partners…which any improviser will tell you just doesn’t work.
When I’m not doing that, though—when I’m truly present and fully engaged and not worried about anything beyond what’s immediately in front of me—those always have been and always will be the best moments of my life. In my mid-twenties I associated them with the freedom of the open road; now they’re associated with work (real estate’s been amazing so far, but that’s a topic for another post) and writing and performing and all sorts of other things, but above all with spending time with the people in my life who are most important to me. Having that feeling more often is about as close to the meaning of life as I can imagine—it’s what’s at the heart of falling in love and being in flow and so many of the other experiences that we spend our lives chasing.
So what’s the solution? For starters, accepting that I don’t know what the solution is, and that that’s OK. Two things I’m going to start with, though, are greater awareness of all the different choices I make in my daily life and more frequent gut checks to ensure that I’m reacting to the world as it actually is, rather than as I want it to be.
I’ll let you know how it goes.