After rereading and editing this particular post, I realize it’s one of the spaciest pieces I’ve ever written. I hope I explained what I mean the way I think I explained what I mean, but there’s some chance I only made it more confusing. This is a warning.
There’s an intern in my first offender DUI program named Martin.
Martin is a black dude, probably stands around 6’3″ with an average build. He has dreadlocks and his style is impeccable, but it’s hard to describe how. Most of the clothes he wears look like hand-me-downs, or as if they came out of a thrift store — only without the negative connotation that thrift stores have assumed over the last ten years. A better way to look at it: Martin is the type of person who would unironically wear a faded, previously owned Smokey The Bear T-shirt from the 1980’s.
There is nothing next-level about that last sentence. What I literally mean to say say is Martin doesn’t care what the shirt says or represents; he has it because it fits him, and presumably because it was cheap (or free). That’s only one example of his style, but it’s a microcosm of his style for everything. He doesn’t care. He is absolutely comfortable with his place in the world, and ultimately set with his value system.
I called him an intern, because an intern is what he calls himself. Usually when you imagine an intern you think of a young person out of high school or college, someone who gets paid nothing (or next to nothing) and does all the mule work. Then, as it’s supposed to play out, that person gets rewarded with a job after some amount of time.
Martin isn’t that. He is middle-aged — probably more in the 55-60 range — though it’s impossible to tell since he’s already put so many miles on his body. He would say his foundation is with Alcoholics Anonymous, but he’s told me privately about his years using all manner of narcotics. It’s always kind of amazing whenever I cross paths with (current) success stories of people recovering from substance abuse.
Anyway, like a lot of other acquaintances I’ve made, Martin and I kind of shared a rivalry at the beginning. He seemed to enjoy challenging me during class, likely since I was both (a) the most comfortably opinionated person in the group and (b) almost completely incapable of compromising from my positions. I think people who like to debate appreciate this about other people who like to debate. At a certain point it isn’t about being right or wrong, it’s about putting on a show. And since we had a couple hours to burn — in a common setting that no one wanted to be in — Martin and I figured we would give the kids what they wanted.
One day, he asked the group this question:
Is there anything more important than right now?
A few of the people tried to answer, but it came out like word salad. In establishments like this there is real value to saying nothing, just as long as you actually speak while doing so. It’s a judgement-free space, and there aren’t any grades involved. It all comes down to whether or not you show up.
So while those people spoke and said nothing, I instead sat there and thought about what I was going to say — since I knew I would inevitably have to talk. Something about the question, though, seemed impossible. What does right now mean? And is it worse to speak and say nothing, or to actually try and come up with an answer that’s off the mark? I didn’t know. And since I didn’t have a good answer to the question and I figured the best way to deflect from that was to question the question itself.
Martin sort of laughed and shrugged, threw up his hands at the group, and said “Exactly, that’s what I’m asking. What does it mean, and what is more important?”
We went back and forth on the semantics, but I still didn’t get what he was driving at. Since I wasn’t clear on when exactly right now was, or is, I pivoted to my default position: The future. I tried to argue that the future is what it’s all about, and that right now is simply the means to get you there.
Clearly, I missed the boat. Martin wasn’t asking about right now with respect to time. He was asking about it as an idea, or concept. I only realized this days later, after thinking a decent amount about the exchange.
It arrived like an epiphany. I was driving to work one morning, and traffic was a real bitch. It was one of those days where people didn’t seem to know what the fuck they were doing. They would cut me off without using their blinker; they would hit their brakes in the fast lane for no apparent reason. I suppose it’s like that every day. I was just noticing it especially.
But along that particular drive it hit me: I am alive, and I have to be here to make choices. I have to be present. Martin wasn’t asking about right now right now, as in this precise moment, in 2018. He was asking about a state of being, of being conscious, and making decisions.
And when you peer through that lens, then no: Nothing is more important than right now.
Martin is an intern, but he drove the discussions like he was the counselor. When I was halfway done with the program I had to do a mid-course interview; basically, Martin had a list of questions he had to ask — what I had learned so far, if alcohol was a problem for me, what steps I planned on taking in the future to avoid drinking and driving — but it turned into a half-hour discussion about how bullshit everything is. That neither major political party gives a damn about the people, that organized religion does more harm than good. We agreed on most things.
In fact, Martin told me I reminded him of himself for most of his life. He sort of called me out for how transparent I was about everything, whether it was seeming too big for the course, or for appearing to doubt every time someone invoked god. He said he, too, used to get pissed off listening to people he didn’t agree with.
It may sound stupid or obvious to you, but I actually learned something here. Martin told me instead of being angry, or trying to one-up everyone when given the chance, he now chooses to find the things he has in common with these people. To my own myopic worldview, this information felt like a bombshell. Could there actually be a way to coexist with those that don’t share any of my feelings or philosophies?
If I were to take absolutely nothing else from the program, it would be that. I have spent so much time militarizing myself with Christopher Hitchens debates on the existence (or nonexistence, I suppose) of God that I have failed to be rational about the reality: Believers exist all over the place, and they will continue to exist all over the place for my entire lifetime. I can’t change that, and I shouldn’t want to change that.
What matters is what I, personally, can control. In my head, I feel like the things I believe are the objective truth, and the things I want are the things everyone should want. This, I imagine, is true for (almost) everybody. Which is also why what I think means (almost) nothing. Everyone has their own subjective experience.
I haven’t seen Martin in about a month, and since next week is my final class, there is a good chance I won’t see him again, like ever. These types of people have entered and exited my life a handful of times. It’s like each time we’re around one another we learn something new, and then one day neither of us are there and that’s the end of it.
But back to the original point: Right now. Whether it’s traffic on my way to work, or getting a little too high for my own good, or being overcome with anxiety in short bursts, lately I have grounded myself by remembering what right now means. It immediately separates me from whatever bullshit is occupying my head, and I get down to the bare bones. Just breathe, be present. Get through it. Live to see another day.
Everyone younger than 30 has faced, and faces, some underhanded discrimination from the older generations. Usually it has to do with being “too lazy,” or “too entitled,” or whatever. For the record I don’t hate Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers for this: This phenomenon has gone on for all-time. It’s why everyone thinks the year they graduated was the best year, and the classes after them all sucked for the most part.
On this blog I have tried to make the distinction between where I believe Millennials get it right (like on economic policy, climate change, social justice) and where I believe Millennials get it wrong (like being phony of social media, or having fragmented attention spans). I don’t blindly back my team just because it’s my team. I was born in a certain year, and so my generation is arbitrary more than anything. But I can relate to them, because I’ve experienced a specific moment in time that they, too, have experienced.
As such, I’m willing to assume that most my age can come to some version of the same conclusion I have. To some people, the concept of right now might just be YOLO. It doesn’t require any deep thought, because right now is intrinsically how they live, anyway.