Along the towering structures that line Central Park South and overlook the majestic park that is the street's namesake, there is a building called The Hampshire House that broke ground in 1931. Near its entryway is a carved stone that caught my attention a few years ago as I was walking past. It reads, "Dedicated to yesterday's charm and tomorrow's convenience."
New York City has been under construction since day one. I remember as a child walking with my parents through the city and being overwhelmed by the noise and spectacle that is the result of constant upgrades and repairs. Streets being torn open, exposed steel beams being welded towards the sky, sidewalks with tunnels of scaffolding to protect you from a cacophony of work being done above, below and beside you. The projects never end in Manhattan and thus the landscape is in constant flux. Change is happening.
This week I went down to the city with my folks to explore The Highline, a newer park that runs along old train lines through Chelsea and other once less desirable areas of the island. It's a beautiful walk through the city, and along with tourists, flowers and assorted cart vendors, the new park has also brought with it change. Nearly everywhere you looked on the mile-and-a-half walk-way, buildings were being torn down and larger, far more modern structures were being raised in their footprints. There is no doubt that when I visit this park five years from now, the experience will be radically different.
Life is change – and yet so often we ignore the quiet evolution only to be shocked by the results. We notice the "change" but often miss the "changing". This week my Facebook page was filled with comments about children going off to school, and specifically many children going to Kindergarten for the first time. My niece and my nephew were among the new recruits, and both sisters lamented at this "change" and seemed to share a desire to slow time down. We like to create "events" in our life - the "before and afters" that we can point towards to mark progress, and often when positioned in a hypothetical future these events bring anxiety, and when located in the imagined past, are wrapped in nostalgia. In reality there are no singular events, just as there is no time. There is only "now" and the plethora of experiences you're having in it. I think that often we are shocked by how quickly children grow because our own childhood seemed so much slower and longer. It seems to contradict our own experience when a child goes from birth to school-age while we seemingly haven't changed at all. We can rest assured, however, that childhood for these new children will be just as long and bizarre a journey as it was for us. Time is not speeding up, things have not truly changed – it's "the same as it ever was" as the Talking Heads once suggested.
If we believe that time is real and that the past and future exist, then it's easy to lament both. You will always be standing on the cusp between the past and future – and much like the sign in front of The Hampshire House, you are likely to wax nostalgic about the "charms" of the past, and either anticipate or fear that which the future promises. You are also likely to point to singular events to mark your passage through this experience, or to use as guideposts for the journey forward. My niece and my nephew are just beginning to be taught to see life in this foolish way and will soon give up the present-moment awareness of childhood for the linear future-focused lifestyle of their older peers. For as I'm sure they know now or soon will, the primary purpose of Kindergarden will be to get to First Grade. The carrot has been dangled. Before they know it, "First Day of School" photos will be swapped out with Elementary School Graduation pics, and new butterflies will form for the first day of Middle School. Then it's off to High School... and that will seem big and daunting, a summer filled with the nervousness of change, only to settle into the same normalcy of classes and social-life as it was before. But now the pressure is really on - you better study for the SATs and watch your GPA or else you'll have a tough time getting into a good college. Then it's off to that college and all the stress and anxiety that comes with that life change. Before they know it - college will be half-way over and now they must decide what they'll do once they get into the "real world" because its coming.... the carrot is almost in reach, the 16+ years of schooling are about to pay off! Of course, once they get into this "real" world they'll have to apply to jobs, get hired and work harder still for there are promotions to be had or better jobs to seek out. Always looking to the next rung, always stressing about the next interview, the new change. And occasionally looking back and saying "it was so much easier back then..." For upon pausing for a moment to reflect, you are likely to notice just how much things have changed while you were busy worrying about a future that likely never arrived.
All for what? For success - that imagined idol that never comes into focus? Certainly not for happiness, although there may be a false hope that it will come as a bi-product of all this effort. More than likely they'll reach a point as I have where you look back and say almost laughingly, "That was an awful lot of anxiety about... well... nothing." And one can't help but get the impression that things were always going to work out regardless. Our anxiety has very little impact on reality, and while our efforts may be rewarded, it becomes clear if we observe life that we are not so much directing the action as witnessing the spectacle. Just like children at the carnival enjoying the airplane ride, we shouldn't confuse our ability to make the vehicle go up and down with the notion that we're actually flying the plane. As long as we steer in the direction of the ride, it may seem as if we're in control, but try deviating from this course and you're likely to meet with unanticipated results. While we can lean into the curve, we can't create the wave – we are the witness to the experience, not the experience itself.
When the artisan who carved those words into The Hampshire House on a cold morning in 1931 completed his task, he likely took a step back to admire his work. For a brief instant his thoughts ceased, and he simply gazed upon his efforts. It was not then, or in the past, but in the timelessness that is the present moment. It was now and it was no different than this "now". It did not matter if it was 1931, 2014 or any year in-between or beyond. There were no charms of the past or conveniences of tomorrow, as those can only exist as thoughts – there was just the infinite beauty of "being" in the now. For this is where all of life truly happens. It did not happen then... it is not going to happen for you some day... it is happening now. If you're worrying about something that might happen, you are missing something that is. While our attention may be drawn to perceived "events", it is important to remember life is the sum total of its parts. It is an experience, not a series of milestones. All of reality is about expansion and change – and thus your own experience of life must expand and change just as all the creatures and objects of reality evolve. So rather than trying to hold onto the past, take comfort in the present moment – sit back and enjoy the ride and marvel at the profound beauty that is change. For truth be told, you wouldn't be here without it.
"Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."
- John Lennon, "Beautiful Boy"