Train of Thought

“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.” ~ Will Rogers

It was getting late and the conversations in German, French, English and Spanish were starting to wear on my already tired brain. The year was 1993 and I had just completed a bicycle tour around Bavaria with a friend of mine, Charlie (the trip I mentioned in the post “A Brave and Determined Spirit“). I was on my way to Paris aboard the train sitting with Germans in front of me, a Frenchman to my left, and English couple behind me and Spaniards to my right.

For whatever reason, most of the passengers in my car were elderly, eager to talk and fascinating beyond words. While looking for the word “upheaval” in my French dictionary, the thought crossed my mind that several, if not all of these itinerant octogenarians were likely at war with one another earlier in their lives. The very people I was sitting in the middle of (or at least their friends or relatives) had likely shot at one another in their youth!

Never having fought in a war personally I can’t even imagine what a powerful impression that must leave on your mind and heart. I feel for those who have suffered the ravages of war. That said, what stood out to me at the time was neither a distaste for war nor chagrin for the inability of the human race to maintain peace, but rather a profound respect for the human capacity to let bygones be bygones.

While I do not know if any or all of them had forgiven or forgotten, I observed that they were able to enjoy one another without any hint of anger, lingering disdain or spite. A remarkable thing, really. At that point I realized that in any given moment of time you have the option to focus your attention on the past, the present or the future.

There is very little value in living in the past. For starters, you cannot do anything about the past. Past is past. Understanding the past may give you insight as to how to handle the present moment, but depending overly on your view of the past can distort your view on the present. You can no more decide what to do now by fixating on the past than you can focus on your first grade class photo and know exactly what your former friends will be wearing tomorrow.

Beyond that, people change and times change. What was important to our forefathers is not necessarily important to us now. Life is not static. It flows, it moves, its forms grow and decay. If you try to hold on to some element of the past – someone you hated, something you loved, an experience that you have yet to top – and superimpose it on your present circumstances, you will likely find yourself out of touch with what is really going on.

If you’ve ever lost your train of thought or had someone tell you that you needed a reality check, you know what I mean. For some reason you let your heart or mind get out of synch with the facts of the moment or of the matter. You got caught up living in the past, misinterpreting the present or perhaps even dreamily dwelling in the future, and in that moment you lost touch.

Life provides everyone with endless opportunities for growth and for change. If you develop the ability to stay focused in what is happening here and now – in every moment – you will gain more momentum in your living than you knew was possible. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.”

Have a good one!

10 thoughts on “Train of Thought

  1. Claire

    Wonderful story. I had a similar experience in Austria; a Jewish youth group from America singing in a nursing home.One of the sponsors commented that many of the men had been German soldiers during WW II. I was struck by how much they enjoyed the performance then on a whim of one of the elderly men invited the kids to join them for afternoon snacks so they could thank them and have the opportunity to chat. Another example of the power of focusing on the beauty of what can happen now. I haven’t thought of that in years, it was a healing experience!

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  2. I have been in a similar scenario and thought the same things before… and wondered the same question too, having come up with a similar understanding of refocusing and living in the moment. I’m sure if the wrong thing was said at any time and pushed someone’s “button” this could change things, but as long as their intentions remained peaceful, or at least tolerant, so could their conversations. Besides, in war, as a soldier you don’t get to choose if you think it’s right or wrong. You fire on command… in some cases it may not have even been a personal choice (right from wrong)… but lately I have been reading more about how to “live in the moment” and although very difficult, I do comprehend the benefit of living for today.

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  3. Colin

    The past being able to correctly inform your actions in the present, while still giving things a chance to change is a delicate balance. A person must be able to forgive for past transgressions, or they will never be able to achieve this balance. If someone has injured you 9 times, you must weigh the fact that they might do it again. However, you must remember that things always change! If you don’t account for this you will always be missing something. Thanks!

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  4. Brad

    this makes me think of my children – they can easily walk into a group of other children, make friends with any of them, move from one person or experience to the next, perhaps have a disagreement with another….all this going on and yet they move from one moment to the next as if there were no past and no future to come – they are completely in that present moment and the life they experience is totally rich as a result.
    makes me wonder what we do to ourselves as we “grow up”?….if we once lived in the present moment we must be able to live now in the present moment
    thanks for the reminder

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  5. Isabelle Kearney

    I do agree that part of the ability to let go of the past and live in the present relates to forgiveness, whether of yourself or others. Being able to forget definitely follows forgiveness – maybe that’s why they say, “forgive and forget.” I’ve found that when I have forgiven, the things in the past fade away and I can barely even remember what they were. Freedom follows and we then can sow new seeds for the future by taking advantage of the opportunities in the present.

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  6. Ed Barnes, Sr.

    Great perspective! I originally found your blog because of an aviation reference, but continue to enjoy all your insights on life in general.

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  7. Julie Owen-Borden

    The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus made a statement to the effect that “everything flows” and “nothing stays” or “nothing stands still” depending on the translation. Life is a dynamic process. It doesn’t mean that things are taken away from us and we have to mourn the past the rest of our days (or try to recreate, or seek retribution for, or however people chain themselves to the past). There is a wonderful evolving creative process always at hand. Thanks for the clear depiction of this through your post.

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