February 26, 2013

Living In The Moment

This is my mom. She'll be 79 years old later this year.  She's had a pretty good life, I guess.  She had an idyllic childhood growing up in the San Joaquin Valley of California.  She was married to my father for over 50 years, and raised six kids who all grew up and managed to stay out of jail.  She's lived in nice houses, travelled a fair amount, read a lot, and had a lot of cats over the years.  She and my father worked hard and invested well, and now she's well into a good retirement.

Mom came of age, intellectually, when existentialist thinking was vogue.  She always told us six kids we are  individually responsible for what we are and what we become.  She told us we were free to go and do what we wanted to do, free, even, to be failures if that's what we wanted to be.  She didn't believe we were "called" to be any particular thing, and conversely she believed that the sum total of our lives, and whatever meaning our lives have, would be what we made it to be.

Existentialist writer, Richard Dawkins, put it this way:  “There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”  Famous existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, put it more directly: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”

It's funny what you can remember about your past.  I have a distinct memory of my mother waving us off to school every day, and every day calling out her mantra to us:  "Learn something new today."  Mom was very smart and she was a voracious reader and learner.  She went back to college when I was attending Reedley Junior College and we took some classes together.  She always got the top grade and kids my age resented her for upping the curve.  Mom was a learned lady who knew a lot about a lot.

Mom's life of learning and her philosophy of self responsibility for what you become seem a little ironic when contrasted to mom's life now, and to what she has become.  You see, mom has Alzheimer's Disease. She lives in a care facility for people with memory deficits.  If ever there was a world where life is lived in the present moment, and only in the present moment, it is mom's present world, and mom's current life.  She literally cannot remember the past, and can't hold a thought long enough to contemplate a future.  She doesn't even remember who her kids are, let alone what she did yesterday, or even two minutes ago.  She got put into the "lock-down" side of her facility because she embarked on a walk to somewhere, but by the time she got two blocks away she couldn't remember where she was headed to, nor where she had come from.  The police, responding to a confused person call, found a card for her facility in her purse or she might still be out there somewhere.

But that's not to say there is no joy in her life.  Mom is a happy person by disposition and training.  I always look at older people and think, "this person has spent her entire life training to be the kind of person she is now." 

Mom lives her life now completely in the moment, and she seems content.  She likes to wander around, or just sit, and admire and enjoy the things she sees -- the yards, the people, the flowers, the trees, the clouds, the cars, the buildings.  She likes the settings in the facility where she lives, which is a good thing.  When I brought her back from a visit to the dentist last week she paused and admired each sitting area in her facility, where she has lived for several years, as if she was seeing it for the first time.  Mom is in the latter stages of Alheimer's Disease decline, around stage 6 of 7.  Every day is a new day, every face is a new face, and nearly every thing she encounters is something new.

But I wonder: If "(m)an is nothing else but what he makes of himself," as Sartre says, then what is my mom?  What has she made of herself?  And is she solely responsible for what she has become and for the life she now lives?

All I know is, if you want your own life to be full and meaningful and wonderful, you ought to get on with it and make it that way today.  For a lot of possible reasons, waiting for tomorrow might not be a good bet.