The approaching traffic light, color turning from green to yellow, beckons a decision. I look forward to assess the traffic flow ahead of me, I glance in the rear view mirror to gauge the distance of the vehicle trailing behind me, and I take notice of my present position on the road. Neurons fire in my brain that sends a conflicting message to my right foot. Depress the accelerator to avoid getting rear-ended, or apply full brakes to avoid running a red light. In a split second, I have looked forward, looked back, and somehow also remained in the present.
We are presented with what seems like an infinite number of choices, every second of every day. Some provide more significant consequences than others, but they are decisions to be made nonetheless. Accelerator or brake? Chicken sandwich or hamburger? Remain in the comfort of your hometown or move a thousand miles away to a new job and a fresh beginning?
As I sit at the red light that I have successfully navigated, the single engine airplane flying overhead reminds me of the delicate balance between looking forward, glancing back, and staying present.
During the practical test required as a part of obtaining my private pilot license, I knew it was coming. It was a skill that needed to be tested in order to assess my aptitude for operating an aircraft as pilot-in-command. You are taught to always remain two steps ahead of the airplane. Remain cognizant of every potential pitfall that may arise while you are thousands of feet in the air. It’s not only required to pass the practical test. It’s essential to remaining safe.
The mesmerizing murmur from the piston engine through your headset and the spinning propeller lures you into a complacent state. Until that sound and that movement is no longer present. The aviation examiner has reached across with her left hand and retracted the throttle lever to idle. “You have just lost your engine”, she says. “What do you do now?” There is a checklist for everything, so I carefully work through the memorized steps: assessing my altitude, locating a suitable landing spot, reporting an emergency over the proper communication channel, and attempting to restart the engine, all while gently and slowly bringing the aircraft closer to the earth as a glider. After living this experience firsthand, it is easier to appreciate why staying ahead of the airplane, looking forward, is more important than staying in the present and admiring the scenery.
I think about how this relates to my everyday life outside of an airplane cockpit. How much time do I spend looking forward, looking back, and staying present? And what is the right amount of each? As evidenced by my experience as a pilot, looking forward keeps you from enjoying the present, those moments right in front of you. Living in the past leads you to stagnate, either constantly relishing in past accomplishments and experiences or playing the “if only” game that plagues our psyche at times. And staying too present prevents you from learning from the past and planning for the future.
I have been looking in the rear view mirror more often lately, in my personal life, in my professional life, and in what I like to call my writing life. And they have some very interesting parallels to one another.
There are things I wish I would have said. There are things I had hoped to handle differently. The decisions themselves and their consequences are irrelevant. What was significant for me was deciding to acknowledge the decisions that were made and reflect on them accordingly. I didn’t obsess on my choices, although it was tempting. The key to my sanity was the decision to glance, as I did when looking in the rear view mirror of my car, and not hyper focus on the past.
In my writing life, I look back at the first few posts that I composed as a part of this blog. Looking at those pieces, I often mutter under my breath, “What in the world was I thinking?” and almost laugh at the absurdity of the content. Poorly written, maybe. Embarrassing, likely. Authentic, absolutely.
I am what most would call a recovering perfectionist. And you would think that my desire to go back and tinker with those pieces from the past would be impossible to resist. Truth is, I never have done so. Maybe it’s because it would be too much work, Maybe it’s because I’m lazy. But, more than anything, I know that it’s because one of my guiding principles is to remain vulnerable and authentic.
Those pieces, however malformed they may have been, were an accurate reflection of my thoughts, feelings, and emotions at that time in my life. Going back and reading them may be difficult for my discerning perfectionist eye. But, there is more to a piece of writing than the words. There is the emotion and feeling held in the space between the words and decisions. And in that sense, to me, these are works of art. They tell a story of my growth as a writer and as a human being.
Looking back you realize that a very special person passed briefly through your life – and it was you. It is not too late to find that person again. ~Robert Brault
I am sure that another year from now, I will look back on a piece I wrote today, on decisions that were made and mutter the same thing beneath my breath, “What was I thinking?” And in a strange and somewhat peculiar sort of way, I actually hope that is exactly what happens. It means I will have grown just a little bit more.