Living in the moment, or living for the moment?

Burning match‘Live in the moment!’ You impose this idea on me, again.

‘Live in the moment,’ I repeat. Why do I have to? ‘Live in the moment, or live for the moment? …’

‘Well, to live in or to live for the moment, that’s the same kind of concept.’

‘No. It is different,’ I say, strongly and angrily.

– Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Vintage 2008 )

This excerpt is taken from Guo’s novel, depicting the deteriorating relationship between a Chinese woman and an English man. The woman wants some certainty for the future, the man wants to ‘drift’ and see what happens. He attempts to stave off her increasing demands for commitment with the importance of living ‘in the moment’, and here, she deftly calls his bluff. What does it really mean to live in the moment? And how often to we substitute it with living for the moment instead?

As ever, I find the balance and boundary between the two quite delicate. Contexts can shift so quickly that we sometimes have to make decisions quicker than our minds can have time to process. Of course, if we are truly living in the moment, we wouldn’t have to process at all!

Last Easter Monday, I’d forgotten that the quiet seaside town that I live in plays host to a tourist throng during holiday weekends. I’d made a plan to take some broken appliances to the local recycling centre, about 6 miles or so away. Ordinarily, it is a five-minute drive. Last Monday, the single-lane coastal road was so packed with holiday makers, I wasn’t even a third of the way through after 20 minutes.

As the traffic crawled at less than 5 mph, there was ample opportunity to watch my mind as it navigated the leaps from moment to moment, lurching and stumbling along the way. For some reason, I’d consented to remaining in that jam for 20 mins, congratulating myself on not getting angry at the situation, especially when I wasn’t sure if the recycling centre was even open on holidays… Self-congratulation should have been the first sign.

Traffic signNevertheless, as the car inched its way forward, I noticed many things I hadn’t noticed before, when I’d just whizzed by. I saw pedestrians brushing the hair from their faces as the wind whipped around them, gulls valiantly trying to soar towards the ocean, only to be blown back by the wind, crazy golfers determined to keep the game going. I saw the clouds hang on the sky like tufts of cotton wool, only to change rapidly to an angry grey, threatening to dampen the spirits of the holiday makers. I saw two white stone lions flank the garden walls of one ostentatious sea front property, accompanied by a pink flamingo, which I hadn’t noticed before. I saw many cars in the line in front of me turn around and return to the direction from which we had come, unwilling, or unable, to wait so long for so a distant prospect.

And then I saw the wisps of smoke coming out from under the bonnet of my car.

The engine was overheating after being idle for so long. Self-congratulation was being overtaken by self-preservation and I was forced to turn the car around and drive back.

Only, half a mile to my flat, another jam had formed with holiday makers seeking a jaunt on the promenade at my end of the town!

Is that not a metaphor for life, and practice? The irony of discovering that just when one thinks one was living in the moment, one was actually really living for the moment instead! And sure, one may come to realisation and make a u-turn, but there’s no guarantee that the point of origin will remain there to be found.

To live in the moment, we have to keep going. As Nick Carraway, the narrator in The Great Gatsby (1925), reveals in his one moment of clarity, right at the end of the novel: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.

And yet, these moments of clarity, in their fleetingness, are the moments we strive to live for in practice. To quote that other great modernist writer, Virginia Woolf, in To the Lighthouse (1927): ‘The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…’

In and for are, on one level, perhaps not altogether so different after all?

Images: Burning Match 1, and Traffic Sign 30. Source: stock.xchng


2 Responses to Living in the moment, or living for the moment?

  1. why not simply live?

    if the moment is still desired why not simply live “with” it.

    but I do warn you that the moment that can be named is not the moment for life is never still.

    rob gruber

  2. hitchhiker72 says:

    Hi rob, thanks for stopping by.

    For me sometimes living IS thinking and naming, and then sometimes acknowledging the futility of doing so. Living, for me, occurs in words, and yet, also in the spaces between words.

    Thank you.

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