Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Living in the Now - a Change of Attitude Changes Everything

The only time we really have is now. Our life occurs exclusively in the present moment. We are living now, in this present moment. And now this one… And this one…

If we remember the past, we do it now. If we imagine the future, we do it now. We can only experience anything in the present – now.

Many thinkers have pointed this out, yet still we forget. At least I do. I’ll tell you a story in a moment to prove the point.

A secret to enjoying life is enjoying the now – finding what could be wonderful about it rather than wishing it was different. As the saying goes, it is what it is.

Too many of us are like the man in the New Yorker cartoon. The cartoon showed him at work thinking about playing golf. Then, when he was playing golf he was thinking about sex. When he was making love, he was thinking about work.

All of those activities – working, golf, sex – had the potential to be fulfilling and enjoyable. His lack of present moment attention sapped them of their pleasure.

If we’re doing something, we should be doing it, engaged with. There can be good in all things, but we can rob them of their enjoyment if we wish they were something different.

I know that; even so, here’s an example of how I messed up.

A few years ago my son needed to get an Italian visa so he could live in Italy for a year as part of an exchange program. There was extensive paperwork involved and he had to apply in person at the consulate in New York City.

We live about a five hour drive from NYC. The consulate is only open a few hours at a time for this purpose and there are no appointments. We were advised to get there 1 1/2 – 2 hours early. It was good advice.

The Italian consulate is a very elegant building on the Upper East Side in New York. Its main entrance opens onto Park Avenue. That’s not where you go for a visa. There’s a small almost unmarked door down the block on a side street. We arrived 2 hours early and the sun was barely up. There was already someone else waiting. By the time they opened the door, the line stretched down the block and around the corner.

When the door did open, we went downstairs to the basement, through security into a room that would have looked at home in the old Soviet Union: painted cinderblock walls, plastic chairs, harsh lighting and uninterested clerks behind glass barriers. They called you up by assigned numbers.

We waited. And then did that some more.

To shorten an already long story, Jon didn’t get his visa. He had everything asked for (in duplicate), but it wasn’t enough for the clerk. In fact, he didn’t get the visa the next two trips. It took four visits, with all that involved - driving to the city, staying in a hotel, going to the consulate at dawn, waiting, etc. – to get the visa.

He ultimately did get the visa. Then it was another trip down to pick it up.

I didn’t do a very good job of practicing what I preach as we were going through those repeat trips. I was frustrated with the bureaucracy. I was frustrated that the requirements they listed in their instructions weren’t enough. I was concerned that he might not get the visa in time to leave.

I was frustrated and I wanted things to be different than they were. I was not present with what was.

We did bring folding camp chairs and books with us on the follow-up trips. (That made us the envy of the line – I recommend it if you ever have to get a visa for Italy.) But otherwise I mainly put up with what I thought was a ridiculous inconvenience and felt frustrated. In retrospect, I could have done much better.

Jon was a senior in high school and had only been to NYC a few times before on class and family trips. I could have gotten him a map of the city, held his place in line for him and set him off to explore the Upper East Side.

He could have wandered those elegant neighborhoods and gotten a sense of what they’re like. He could have walked down Madison Avenue and the other streets everyone has heard of. Just that would have been more of an education than the books we were reading.

There were art galleries and interesting shops in the neighborhood. Museums were close by. Central Park was only a couple of blocks over.

We did walk through Central Park one time after being turned down at the consulate. That visit was good fun. We could have done more things like that.

In short, I was making overnight trips to one of the greatest, most exciting cities in the world and treating it simply as a chore. It could have been an adventure. All that would have needed to change was my attitude.

I let my frustration and my concern interfere with my view of the big picture. Since I was going to be going to New York, it would have made sense to figure out how to make the most of it. In a city like that, it wouldn’t have been hard.

We tell family stories now about the ridiculous Italian bureaucracy and Jon and I have some pleasant memories of the trips, but I missed the chance to create fantastic memories of epic proportions.

So my suggestion, offered for your consideration, is: appreciate what you are doing. If you have to do it, find a way to make it as positive as it can be rather than wishing it were different. What is, is. The only moments we have are the ones we are in – make the most of them.

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