How to be Present and Future at the Same Time

It starts with you deciding what matters most

You’re holding your breath and looking inward and so is everyone else; you’re finding out who you are and so is everyone else.

These are confusing times on planet Earth.

Words reach deeper than ever. And if touch is your main love language then social distancing is probably your personal definition of hell. Renaming it physical distancing takes some of the sting away but still can’t make it appealing.

You begin to wonder who you are without the physical presence of others. Lockdown measures without an end date are unsettling. One week turns into two then into a month and now you’ve stopped counting. Does anyone remember exactly when it all began? Every day is today now and it feels like a revelation. What if tomorrow never came? You dismiss the thought as macabre.

But it keeps coming back, demanding attention, compassion.

You really don’t want to have anything to do with any of this. It overwhelms you. You brace yourself for the worst case scenario, hoping for mental inoculation against horror.

But media and social media keep upping the ante, oblivious to anyone’s mental health. Death and destruction are everywhere you look.

Boundaries between reality and how it is represented are so blurred you keep mistaking one for the other. You meander amid flickering screens and convincing illusions, looking for hope and human warmth amid digital detritus rehashing doom and gloom for attention, influence, and cash.

You forget words have power. You could start by telling yourself better stories now that the third dimension has gone. Vulnerability is a vortex that sucks you in then spits you out before sucking you back in again. You’re a screen, many of us are mostly screens.

It’s exhausting, as if you had forgotten how to be a human in the world. Then again, it’s not the same world anymore. Uncertainty has reduced humans to pixels and data packets, we cradle hearts in binary code.

Yet you try, for the most part, to hold it together. You would prefer not to experience entropy.

The internet is lifeline, mirror, shepherd. But the emotions you’re trying to keep a tight lid on are probably (still) someone’s pay check or someone else’s latest income stream. The more time you spend online, the greater your sense of unrest. You’re disturbed by what you read and now you’re also doubtful you can overcome any of it without some extraordinary intervention.

And you will get it: Several times a day, the internet will scam you into saving yourself.

This isn’t a sign from the universe that the right offer came at the right time.

Someone else just told you a better story.

Look, you’re not dumb, the internet just thinks you are.

If the internet were honest, making you feel worse wouldn’t be its stock-in-trade.

Right now, you need the internet to help you make sense of what’s going on. You need the internet for relief and respite. You need the internet to palliate the physical absence of human warmth. So why are you producing and consuming the opposite?

Pay less attention to noise that undermines and destroys so you can make out signal that nurtures and empowers. It exists, it has existed all along, and now it’s thriving with more intensity and purpose than ever.

Pain, shock, and outrage are lucrative but they don’t exactly do wonders for mental health. Decency, compassion, and solidarity are a lot harder to monetize.

So if you can’t get paid to change the world, does it mean you shouldn’t try?

Hope is contraband, the preserve of those who brew it up in the basement of their brain. You refuse darkness and want fireworks so you start imagining alternatives to the ambient misery, the constant malaise, the omnipotent greed, the sticky disconnectedness, the persistent meaninglessness of it all.

It’s addictive. If you can read and imagine and write your way through this, you can wedge hope in between layers of despair, you can remain in motion.

Even when you acknowledge and accept this — all this, the unfathomable magnitude of this — as temporary. And it’s important that you do. Endurance is inevitable, survival is your first priority, and no banal solution masking reality can help.

Staying alive is the achievement, whatever it takes, and your imagination can take you wherever you need to go. You can be present and future at the same time by reading and telling yourself — and others — better stories.

Stories that allow for joy again, at last.

Reasons to be Cheerful is a non-profit editorial project founded by artist and musician David Byrne. The site is "part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world." The Upside is The Guardian's weekly digest of pure optimism proving that "news doesn't have to be bad."BBC Earth Weird is the British Broadcasting Corporation's compendium of fauna and flora factoids that are never not surprising because "some things in nature can be a little strange."

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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