The Danger of Living Life In “The Past Tense”

I was lying down the other day, thinking about this: the past is truly past.

Whatever upsets you about the past, if you just ruminate on the fact that this past event is truly over now, you might feel some relief almost immediately. This is because you’ll realize that the past doesn’t exist in any living, breathing, “organic” way today.

True: the past has left its footprints (and its misguided pathways) but the past itself is no longer here.

All you have is the present; and the present tense, as you well know, is the most urgent and exciting of all the tenses.

Past, Present, And Future Tenses

If an author chooses to tell his character’s story in the past sense, his character is immediately disempowered: she’s forced to live out a story that has already happened. Her fate is sealed and nothing can be changed. This is because her story has already happened–it isn’t happening.

If an author chooses to tell his character’s story in the future tense, his character is no better off: she’s forever stuck in yearning for a better world she can never have. She sits around waiting, wanting, begging, and pleading for a chance to win her heart’s desire, but can never achieve it. (This will happen, that will happen–but none of it has happened yet.)

I imagine that every fictional character in the world of imagination must secretly desire to have their story written in the present tense. Meanwhile, ever non-fictional character in the real world seems bent on living their story in either the past tense or in the future tense—either regretting a past tragedy, or yearning for a future miracle.

And yet: what a fictional character wouldn’t give to have the awesome power real-life people have to change their own destiny?

When Life Is A Matter Of Tenses

Sometimes, life is simply a matter of choosing the right tense. Whenever you choose a tense to live in, you practically sign away your whole life to that tense.

Those who choose to live in the past tense, for instance, must always act as if they’re living in the final act of their story. It’s as if they’re trapped forever in The Epilogue–everything worthwhile in their story has passed. All the “glory days” are over. “The Golden Age” is dead. No need to look forward to a thrilling climax: they’ve already had their climax. Either it was a huge let down, or it was so great that nothing could ever top it again. Either way, for those who live in the tragic past tense, the tale of their lives has already been told. There’s nothing more to add and there’s not a sequel in sight.

Ironically, those who choose to live life in the future tense are no better off than their “past-tense” counterparts: I have known of people so obsessed with living in the future that they will yearn and yearn and yearn for something and then, when that something finally arrives, they seem to miss it, and literally look past it, as if they’re still yearning for that same something. You can try as hard as you can to make these people realize that they have actually attained their heart’s desire, but they’ll still shake their head and look at you with a heavy dose of self-pity:

“No, you don’t understand,” they’ll say with a glum face. “My dream just hasn’t arrived yet.”

You wonder if they aren’t playing some nasty trick on you. You almost want to shout at them and tell them how upset you are that they’re being so rude; but then you realize that they haven’t been trying to play a trick on you, they’ve been playing a trick on themselves. They’ve cast the dreadful spell of ”future tense” over their own lives. For them, everything worth having will always be located somewhere, far away, in the perfect tomorrow, and if only they could reach that future, they’d be happy.

But that future will never come for them, will it?

Those who choose to live life in the future tense are stuck in Act One of their story. You are familiar with this act: it’s the moment in which our heroine yearns for a dream, but still hasn’t achieved her dream. At this point, there’s great joy over imagining all the wonderful possibilities.

Maybe this is the terrifying allure of living a life in the future tense: it’s like being wrapped up in a warm blanket of everything that could be–and thinking about what “could be” can give us a pleasant sensation that’s so titillating, so deeply intoxicating, that many of us won’t want to let it go so easily.

Choose Your Tense Wisely

Having a vision for your future is important. Studying your history is necessary in order to heal past wounds and remedy past mistakes. But, even so, the past is still—irrevocably—the past.

If you don’t believe me, look around for it. Look for The Past in the real world. Tell me if you can witness a living, breathing “Yesterday.” Tell me if you can literally see a fully animated and functional version of “A Week Ago.” Tell me if you can actually witness the vibrant, organic, 4-Dimensional presence of “Five Years Ago.”

You can’t, can you?

You can’t see the past outside of the memories of your mind.

That’s because the past isn’t here anymore. It’s gone. It’s been gone–but you still keep dancing to its tune.

“This happened to me, and then that happened to me–and then remember when this happened to me? How can I ever move on and be happy after all that has happened to me?”

What you may see today, at best, are only the footprints of the past and the misguided pathways these footprints have made for you. (Even then: you can choose to continue to walk down these old pathways, or you can choose to walk down a whole new path.)

And what about the future?

Can you see the future in the real, physical world (outside of your mind’s eye)?

I can’t. Can you?

Though the future is great for safekeeping, it is not great for living. The future is what gives you impetus to live, yes, but it cannot bring you into life. To live in the future tense is to live as if everything we desire always eludes us.

“I hope this will happen to me, and I hope that will happen to me, and I can’t wait for this to happen to me! How can I ever move on and be happy until all that happens to me?”

Do you know what happens to a character who gets stuck in Act One of their story, yearning for a future they can never have?

Their story doesn’t get finished.

So choose your tense wisely, my friend.

much love,

Ollin

Today’s Courage Exercise

Live in present tense.

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9 comments on “The Danger of Living Life In “The Past Tense”

  1. Douglas says:

    Yes so true. And I love your writing it really connects with us. I also love your post about waiting. It’s so funny. And true. Thank you.

  2. Ollin, this is wonderful thought concerning writing…and so much more.
    I wanted to see if it would be possible to reblog this with your permission.

    Thank you.

  3. Reblogged this on Familosity and commented:
    I could not resist sharing this post, from a favorite blogger, about writing…and so much more. Hope you enjoy it as much as did.

  4. The thoughts on life in this post are elegantly simple to understand, and I love the interesting connection you make between the art of choosing tenses and the art of living life.
    As a writer, I disagree with some of the statements you make about tense and the resulting analogy with life, but that doesn’t make your thoughts on life any less powerful.
    Thank you for challenging me to live in the present. It’s a habit to little practiced in this world.

  5. lkwatts says:

    Hi Ollin,

    This is SO true. I’m often guilty of living life in the past and because of this I miss out on everything here in the present. I just need to try and live in the moment more and try to cut down on the memories of the past.

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