Living in the Moment, for a Moment

“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” — Mathew 6:34

“There’s a special rung in hell reserved for people who waste good scotch.” — The film “Inglorious Bastards”

From an early age, our energies become channeled and directed towards a series of goals. As each goal is completed a new one immediately appears. If we do not have a project to complete, we become restless. Such is our Faustian nature. Thus it’s the future where we locate our happiness and fulfilment. As Alexander Pope expressed it, “Man never is, but always to be blest.”

What makes us future-oriented? We wouldn’t be so, were it not that the present always appears lacking, incomplete and insufficient. What’s really lacking about the present? That is a profound mystery. Indeed, a famous Zen master used to ask his students: “At this moment, what is lacking?”

The fact that human being are perpetually discontent is the spur to technological advancement, as well as continual changes made on a personal level. But we may begin to suspect, after having lived a certain amount of time, that our plans and projects will not lead to the imagined state of fulfillment. On the contrary, they are bound to lead to more insufficient moments. We might then decide to no longer be deluded by images of future happiness. That would mean living fully in the present moment. Alas, I’ve never met anyone who can live in the moment, for more than a brief moment, now and then.

The Present Moment Comes as a Surprise
That said, there are moments — and they are relatively rare — when we do find ourselves living fully in the moment. They usually surprise us. It would appear such moments cannot be willed. They are, some would say, a gift of grace. (It’s been said that the present is, indeed, a “present,” i.e., a gift.) Sometimes, the perception of intense beauty can grab us and then we are in the present moment. But we can chase beautiful sunsets for all our days and still not be graced by such moments.

There are catalysts, besides beauty, that sometimes invite such moments. One is the taste of food, but the context must be right. No spice quite brings out the flavor of food, as does danger and doom. There is an ancient story, from the East, that illustrates my point. It is about a man hanging over a cliff, by a vine. On the top of the cliff lies a tiger and down below is another tiger. To make matters hopeless, there is a mouse gnawing at the vine. The man realizes that he is clearly doomed.

But, just at that moment, the man notices a strawberry growing from the side of the cliff. He plucks the strawberry and bites into it, commenting on how delicious it is. This tale is often used in Zen Buddhism to illustrate our existential fate and we may transcend it through an embrace of the moment. In his Confessions, Leo Tolstoy considers the story, but is not able to derive from it the meaning that he had been seeking. Perhaps, the problem, for Tolstoy, was that he was only reading about such a moment, rather than actually experiencing it.

The recent Quentin Tarantino film, Inglorious Bastards (2009) [Warning: plot spoiler ahead] has that sort of “strawberry moment,” except in this case it is not a strawberry but a glass of scotch that tastes so good. And instead of tigers, there are Nazis. The heroic protagonist of this encounter is British Lt. Archie Hicox, who is disguised, with his comrades as Nazi officers. He is seated at a table, in a bar, across from Nazi Major Dieter Hellstrom. Here is how the dialogue proceeds:

[Major Hellstrom aims his Walther at Lt. Hicox’s genitals, under a table.]
Major Dieter Hellstrom: That was the sound of my Walther pointed right at your testicles.
Lt. Archie Hicox: Why do you have a Luger pointed at my testicles?
Major Dieter Hellstrom: Because you’ve just given yourself away, Captain. You’re no more German than that scotch.
Lt. Archie Hicox: Well, Major…
Bridget von Hammersmark: Major…
Major Dieter Hellstrom: Shut up, slut. You were saying?
Lt. Archie Hicox: I was saying that that makes two of us. I’ve had a gun pointed at your balls since you sat down.
Stg. Hugo Stiglitz: That makes three of us.
[Stiglitz takes Hellstrom by the shoulder and aggressively forces a gun against his crotch]
Stg. Hugo Stiglitz: And at this range, I’m a real Frederick Zoller.
Major Dieter Hellstrom: Looks like we have a bit of a sticky situation here.

The situation, which is a prelude to a Mexican standoff, is desperate and doomed. And so here come the strawberry moment:

Lt. Archie Hicox: Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s?
Major Dieter Hellstrom: By all means, Captain.
Lt. Archie Hicox: [picks up his glass of scotch] There’s a special rung in hell reserved for people who waste good scotch. Seeing as I might be rapping on the door momentarily…
[drinks it]
Lt. Archie Hicox: I must say, damn good stuff, Sir.
[sets his glass down and smokes his cigarette]

There are those who would argue that Lt. Hicox is an aesthete, up to the very last moment. He was, after all, a film critic. But aesthetes do not walk fearlessly into the Valley of the Shadow of Death without crapping out. There is, no doubt, something deeper going on here. Lt. Hicox has had a moment of grace, a moment of perfect appreciation of the goodness of life and, if one is religious, the goodness of God. He knows, at that moment, what King David tells us in Psalm 34:8, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” Yes, the psalmist recommends that we taste it, whether it be as a strawberry, a glass of scotch, a hamburger or simply the air that we breathe.

Readiness for Grace

“…for I love thee, O Eternity!” — Nietzsche

Mystics have spoken of the eternal moment. How paradoxical that eternity, which is the negation of time, can be in time! How strange to say, for example, that last Tuesday, at 3:00PM, Eastern Standard Time, I experienced eternity! And yet, crazy though it may sound…

Would you like to read the rest of this insightful essay? Then purchase a copy of my new book:

Mysteries in Broad Daylight: A Journey into the Deeper Meaning of Everyday Life.”