We human beings suffer from a persistent illusion that creates a huge amount of needless stress: we see today as much bigger and more significant than other days.
It seems like we should. Today is the only day we’re able to actually do anything, and the only day we can experience the consequences of what we’ve already done. In that sense, today is pivotal: what you have to do today is clearly much more relevant to your life than what you had to do on the same date ten years ago. This seems like common sense.
But this common feeling overlooks a crucial fact that would save us a lot of suffering if we could only stay aware of it: other days are “today” too. In fact, it’s the only kind of day there is. Chances are, whatever was looming huge in your mind ten years ago today had no more absolute importance to your life as whatever is stressing you out this morning.
It doesn’t feel like it though, because it seems like the person you were back then — the person those problems belonged to — wasn’t quite you yet. You were still on your way to becoming who you are. You still had some bad habits you no longer have; you were still in a job or a relationship that was all wrong for you; you hadn’t yet discovered the joy of running every morning, reading before bed, eating mostly vegetables, or a lot of the other things that might seem essential to who you are now.
Of course, ten years from now it will feel the same way. You’ll be a different person, and your life as it is today will seem distant, and not particularly relevant.
Research shows that we consistently overrate the importance of today in the scope of our lives. In 2012, a group of psychologists published a study in which they asked more than 19,000 people about how they had changed over time, and how much they expected to change in the future. The subjects were asked about their preferences, habits, and values, and how those things had changed over the last ten years. They were also asked to estimate how much they expected to change over the next ten.
The researchers found that at all ages, people consistently underestimated how much they would change in the future. For example, 40-year-olds looking back at their 30s saw that they had changed quite radically in the intervening decade, while 30-year-olds predicted relatively little change in the decade ahead of them.
From the abstract of the study:
“People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”
It turns out that at every age — or perhaps on every day — we feel like we have reached the end of history. Today always seems so enormous, so significant in a way other days never were. Everything before today’s problems, which we see as our real problems, was backstory, relevant only in how it informs what happens today.
The extra significance that seems unique to right now was there all along, in every experience you ever had. And today, this day on which you’re sitting here reading this article — along with all the worldly concerns currently weighing on you — is happening on a date that used to be tiny in your mind, just another square on the calendar, and will soon be tiny again.
It’s not that today isn’t significant, only that life’s other days are more or less equally significant, even if it doesn’t seem like it from where you stand now. Today you might look back on your high-school breakup, and all of the fretting and sobbing that came with it, as silly or even cute. But when you were there it was happening now, and it was excruciating.
Why is this important? For one thing, it’s needlessly stressful to believe that we’re always at an important crux in life. The fact that today’s problems seem urgent and far-reaching doesn’t justify how much we agonize over them, because everything we do is far-reaching. All of our decisions, from our choice of career to whether we return a particular call or not, have lifelong consequences.
The path of life is all crossroad. But that’s what it means to be free. The sheer volume of happenings in a single human life makes each set of day-to-day problems much less significant than life’s overall course, which is what really matters, and which we are always, in every moment, free to alter.
If we could remember this reality, it would help us to be less uptight about the outcomes of our current problems. We could still make good choices, only without so much worry. There would be a lot more room for joy and humor if we learned that it’s okay for today to be a bit ugly, or unsettled, or sad.
There is solace to be found in simply recognizing the immense scale of our lives. A human life is too vast, too rich and varied in content, for any given day’s events to be critical to the whole thing. Therefore, our willingness to be calm in the face of day-to-day unsettledness is much more important than the specifics of what is so unsettling about right now.
This is true even of the big, permanent events: deaths, losses, diagnoses and breakups. A death, for example, is clearly permanent, but it is your relationship to that event that gives it meaning, and that relationship is not at all permanent. It will change fairly rapidly, in fact. It will be quite different a week later, and very different a year later. And by then, it will be someone slightly (or greatly) different who is experiencing it. You don’t have to bear the weight of the entire catastrophe today. Other days, and other Yous, will split the burden, in ways you perhaps can’t see from here.
But most stress, for most people, doesn’t come from these bombshell events. It comes from the endless tissue-box of little concerns that always seem so much larger than they really are, at least as long as we treat today like a different kind of day than all the rest. Once they no longer belong to today, their intrinsic smallness will be revealed.
The key is to recognize the relative smallness of these events as they are happening, and release the need for certainty about the outcome. Failure and difficulty are fundamentally okay. So are wasted time, bad decisions, disappointment and loss. All lives, even great ones, contain frequent doses of all of these things, and that means they are all less damning than we tend to think they are when they’re happening.
There will be days when you are so upset, you just can’t conceive of today as something small. That’s when it’s helpful to remember another humbling reality: your life is one of billions, and your “today” one of trillions, all of them just as vivid and inescapable as yours.
In high school I had an eccentric history teacher. He was very cordial and well-spoken, but had a burning pet peeve. He could lose his temper when students called people of the past boring or stupid.
One time in class someone said the Russian Revolution was “super boring”, and this set our teacher off perfectly. For a few moments he just stood there, fuming through his nostrils at the student. He looked like he was going to explode, but was still searching for the words.
“Don’t you understand it yet?!” he finally sputtered. “This,” he said, holding up the textbook, tapping a photograph of a crowd in a public square. “This is real like this classroom is real, like this school is real — all of these people were someone, and all of this was TODAY!”