When I wrote Rewriting the Rules one thing that I couldn’t include – due to copyright issues – were the songs that formed my soundtrack to the book. Various lyrics lodged in my head as summing up a key idea or point. For example, when writing the love chapter, It Ain’t Me Babe by Bob Dylan perfectly captured what it is like when we place too many expectations on a partner: ‘Babe’ wants Bob to gather flowers constantly, to come each time she calls, to close his eyes and heart for her, and to die for her and more. So many break-up songs helped me to articulate the rules of separation, particularly the song by Guns n’ Roses where the singer blames his ex for every moment of pain he’s experienced over the last Fourteen Years and uses the song as his way of having the last word. But the song lyrics that I was most sad not to be able to include were those of Anticipation, by Carly Simon.
In the chapter on commitment I wanted to explore the ways in which we tend to spend so much time, in our relationships, living in the past or in the future. Many mindfulness authors have written about the value of being present, but few have applied this idea specifically to relationships and none – to my mind – have captured the tendency to drift away from the present as well as Simon.
Living in the future
The song begins:
We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway
And I wonder if I’m really with you now
Or just chasing after some finer day.
It is so easy, when things are going well with somebody, to slip into planning the future rather than appreciating what we have at the moment. We feel so good with them that we spend our time trying to figure out how we could be together more, or we dream of a time when our work commitments, financial arrangements, or living situations changed such that we could have this feeling all of the time. If we’re busy wemight imagine perfect holidays or times when our lives weren’t so stressful. Despite the fact that we can’t know about these ‘days to come’ they become our focus instead of the time we spend together right now.
Similarly, if things don’t feel good in a relationship, we easily slip into chasing after ‘finer days’ either with other people, or with the same person but in a situation where whatever it is that we find problematic about them has changed. At such times the future can be like a heavy weight upon us. Instead of just being with the person we are with in the moment – despite any difficulties between us – we imagine a future with them with our feelings fixed exactly as they are right now, and it seems intolerable.
Also it may well be that things feel so difficult exactly because of our anticipation of how they should be – and the fact that the present isn’t matching up to this. We compare the relationship to how it was in the past (often with selective recall), or how we imagine it being with other people.
Living in the past
The song goes on:
And I tell you how easy it feels to be with you
And how right your arms feel around me.
But I, I rehearsed those words just late last night
When I was thinking about how right tonight might be.
I love this verse. The first two lines are so evocative of that simple, but simultaneously miraculous – feeling of connection and contentment in another person’s presence. And just when we’re recognising that fleeting perfection, Simon pulls the rug out from under us by letting us know that she’d imagined saying those words to her lover as part of a whole rehearsed scene.
Whilst the verse is still about anticipation of the future (what Simon was doing ‘late last night’) it also says something about how we live in the past in relationships. I link it to an idea that I got from my friend Jamie Heckert. He suggests that we often lose touch with the present because we are so busy trying to create perfect memories of the past that we can then look back on.
So, as well as living in the past when we compare the present unfavourably against previous times, we also live in the past when we treat the present as a memory in the making, rather than being with it as it is. Whenever I think of this I’m reminded of the scene in Groundhog Day when Bill Murray tries to recreate the perfect evening that he had with Andie MacDowell. The more that he attempts to force it to be exactly as good as before, the worse it becomes.
And tomorrow we might not be together
I’m no prophet, Lord I don’t know nature’s way
So I’ll try to see into your eyes right now
And stay right here, ’cause these are the good old days.
The final verse of the song expands the problem of anticipation out to the whole relationship. The previous verses were more time-bound: speaking of the way we want to make tomorrow night perfect, or compare this weekend against last, or this holiday against the one we had the previous year.
In the last verse Simon reminds us that the whole relationship may not last. Indeed – however tough it is to face up to – it will inevitably end at some point whether through break-up or through one of us dying. ‘Tomorrow we might not be together’ sounds to me like the Buddhist idea that ‘the glass is already broken’ which I wrote about in Rewriting the Rules. Remembering that life will end is a good way of reminding us to appreciate today. Remembering that relationships will end is a similarly helpful reminder to value the person or people we are with right now.
Mindfulness uses the idea of ‘being present’ to bring us back to now. However I think that we could equally use Simon’s idea that the very things that we are nostalgic about, or longing for, are made up of these moments we’re in together right here. If we can simply allow them to unfold and stay in them we might realise that ‘these are the good old days’.