If not now, when?
In Kate Atkinson’s award-winning novel “A God in Ruins,” she tells the story of a man’s life asynchronously and non-linearly. You first read about events toward the end of the main character’s life and then read about his earlier life later. The segments are all out of order, making the reading a bit bewildering at times.
American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his famous book “Slaughterhouse Five,” used the same non-linear structure in the telling of the story of his character. In this case, the character himself lives his life in asynchronous segments — i.e., living his middle adulthood before some parts of his childhood. Therefore, in his childhood he knew what his last days would look like.
In my recent read of Atkinson’s book and reread of Vonnegut’s, it struck me how both of them led me to realize how confining it is to live life in order. Our focus is almost exclusively on things that are in the recent past or the near future. With such a narrow window, it is hard to know what matters and what does not.
In “Slaughterhouse Five,” Vonnegut lives out his later adulthood with his wife before he lives the experience of meeting her. As a young man, then, he knows what will come of his marriage to this young woman in front of him. He knows of their struggles, even knows that she gets much less pretty as she ages. But he also knows the good that comes of their lives together, and he makes the decision to marry her knowing full well what would come.
None of us, of course, get to live life like this. We are bound by our limited, time-bound lives to make decisions that will look foolish or ironic later in life. Sometimes we spend years of stress about something that in the end won’t matter at all. And we also find ourselves neglecting the people and experiences that will matter more than anything else later in our lives.
For example, we may find ourselves working to amass great wealth for decades of our lives, always planning to retire at 55 and live the good life free of toil and stress. What we might not see during all those years, and hardly get to realize until it is too late, is that we die of a heart attack the day before we were to retire. So we spent a life on the things that didn’t matter, neglecting our relationships, only to get neither.
Conversely, we may neglect or avoid something that seems in our narrow view to be a dangerous thing, not realizing (ever) that it would have put us on a path far superior to the one we have stuck to in order to be safe.
When I have taken the time to read old journals from when I was in college, I am often struck at how silly it all seems. Of course, I had no idea where my life was headed, or with whom it would be shared. I was worried about all the wrong things. This seems to be a pattern in my life. Often when I have moved overseas (and even when I moved from Egypt to Rexburg), I worried about all kinds of details. In the end, most of those things I stressed about ended up not mattering at all. And things I never even thought about ended up being the most significant problems to overcome.
So, here is the lesson: Don’t worry — not because it will all “work out the end,” but because you are far too limited in your understanding and ignorant of what will matter and what will not that worrying is simply a waste of time. If you knew the end from the beginning, you could know what to worry about and what to pass off as unimportant. But, like it or not, you don’t get to know the end from the beginning.
Think of how much time and energy we spend worrying about things that turn out to not matter at all, and how often we are broadsided by terrible things we could not see coming. The only solution, as I see it, is to let go of trying to control everything to be the way we want it to be. Instead, find joy now in the simple things like walking on grass with your bare feet after a rain (I just did this five minutes ago) or talking with a child about what makes them happy. Live now: it is all you’ve got.
Matthew Whoolery holds a doctorate in psychology and is an instructor at Brigham Young University-Idaho. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.