Anxiety and Depression (part 2): the philosophy of time travel

Dear Former Self,

Thank you for your letter about Anxiety and Depression: the cousins no one likes a visit from. I’m glad you travelled back in time, all the way back to those brutish cousins’ first visit in 2001. Sometimes revisiting the past in order to reinterpret and make peace with it can help the present and lead to a better future. But I’ve also found that there are subtle differences between revisiting and dwelling, reinterpreting and re-aggravating. In my experience, once you’ve retrieved what you need from the past, it’s important to return to the present. It’s too easy to get stuck back there replaying parts of your life over and over again—almost as depressing as watching reruns of M*A*S*H while ironing.

I want you to think back to the end of the film Donnie Darko—after Donnie’s girlfriend, Gretchen Ross, dies. Donnie becomes obsessed with the philosophy of time travel and finding a way to travel back in time to undo all the things that ‘went wrong’. He decides that the best way to fix everything is to go back to the night the jet engine crashed through his bedroom roof. This time around—by staying in his bed and dying (instead of wandering the golf course at night)—Gretchen will never meet him, or get shot. But you see, Donnie was already time travelling, in a sense, well before he found the wormhole that sent him back. The moment he fixated on the past was also the moment, energetically, that he checked out. And yes this is science fiction, but here’s my point: people do this kind of thing every day without even realising. If your mind gets stuck in the past—or the future for that matter—you’re not really here, you’re time travelling.

The past and the future can be alluring, and they’re skilful at coaxing you out of the present. They use your memories to replay apparent missed opportunities and mistakes, and employ Busby Berkeley choreography to fill you with a sense of nostalgia for times that were ‘better’. They also use your vivid imagination to conjure up possible future catastrophes worthy of constant worry (as if worrying will somehow prevent them), and distract you with daydreams of a time when you’ll be so carefree you’ll eat cakes all day like a nanna (nannas love cake). The past and the future scream at you; the present whispers. It’s hard not to let the voices of the past and the future fill up the present. And once they’ve pulled you into the time machine, the present finds it very hard to get your attention back. This is why I meditate—not so I can become a monk or a cult leader—I’m trying to turn down the volume on my radio-station-brain that’s tuned to 4KQ and wants to play the ‘greatest hits and latest memories’, and give myself a chance of hearing some new releases. Some people call the whisper of the present your authentic voice. Whatever it is, I’m often surprised by the clarity and peace in what I hear when I tune out all the extraneous noise.

Of course, the present doesn’t do itself any favours in the battle for your headspace; it can feel like an elusive beast at the best of times—as if the passing of each second makes it forever just out of reach. But when you keep looking for it, you bring yourself back to the now; you step out of the time machine back into everyday life as it continually unfolds. And being in the present is vital to letting go of anxiety and depression. It may sound like a strange conjunction, I know, and in order for me to explain I need to take you back in time again. Ironic, right, like Alanis Morrisette.

Remember when you used to wonder what people meant when they said ‘live in the moment’, or why they’d quote things like Oasis’s album title Be Here Now like it was biblical? And then there was your hatred of Hollywood movies that would preach ‘carpe diem’ and ‘live every day as if it were your last’. I smile when I think back to your usual response: “Fuck off carpe diem”. It always seemed like a horrid platitude to you: so naff, and even irresponsible. You felt that if everyone on the planet started acting like each day was their last—at the same time—it would surely bring on the apocalypse; that the world would turn into a pornographic version of Supermarket Sweep, but without Ian Turpie (RIP).

Of course you were younger and more melodramatic back then, perhaps even angry at the world for insisting you ‘seize the day’ because, really, you had no idea how to be in the moment or why you should even bother trying. (After all, you thought, what’s wrong with replaying the past or worrying about the future?) It wasn’t until a recent appointment with Chris Knight that you began to truly understand what living in the present really meant and why it was so important to your anxiety and depression.

Chris had—what I like to refer to as—those ten words. It has become a saying of mine when I’m struggling with something: “I just need to find those ten words that will unlock this situation and the way I’m feeling about it; the ten words that will help me understand what’s going on at a deeper level and begin to grow.” Sometimes all you need is a few simple words to make something click. And in this case, you’d been looking for those ten words about your anxiety and depression for a long time.

The message was this: your anxiety is about the future; your depression is about the past. People who feel anxious are often worried about something in the future, scared of what is going to happen; people who feel depressed are often replaying the past, dwelling on the things that ‘went wrong’. Someone who is present—who is in the here and now—isn’t anxious or depressed, they can’t be, because there’s nothing to be anxious or depressed about. They’re not stuck in the past, they are not fearful of the future, they are in the present: living. Essentially, they’re not allowing anxiety and depression to hijack the present, which is all any of us really have.

And suddenly the notion of living in the moment, and that little phrase ‘carpe diem’, didn’t seem so naff anymore, did they?

Really, when you think about it, there is no tangible past or future. The past happened—sure—but it’s gone now, and only exists in our mind. We can’t go back to it. We can’t change anything about it. There is no ‘past’ except the past that we hold on to and choose to remember: our interpretation of it. All that we can change about the past is how we feel about it. And the future? That doesn’t exist either, not yet, it’s just a series of possibilities spinning round and round inside our head. It’s unpredictable. We can’t press fast-forward on life and suddenly end up in the future—not unless someone makes a Delorean from Back to the Future for real.

And of course we can take steps in the present to work towards our goals and dreams. (Sitting at home just waiting and hoping for the future to be awesome is like expecting to lose weight by watching The Biggest Loser.) We can actively try to make the future better, but we can’t control everything about it—a subtle but important difference. And in the end our dreams may turn out to be just that: dreams. Sometimes life has a strange way of playing out the way it planned, despite our best efforts. Going through IVF has taught you that much. After all, none of us have the giant remote control to the universe. Someone or something up in the sky has eternal dibs on that, and occasionally even likes to wave it in our faces to remind us who is boss, forcing us to watch the daily horrors of SBS News when we’d much rather change the channel to Next Top Model. But, by staying in the present we become open, and we might even hear that little whisper telling us what plans the universe already has for us. And maybe, just maybe, we might even allow those dreams to become our own, to be led in the direction we are supposed to go, instead of trying to impose our own will on the future. After all, trying to arm-wrestle the universe into doing what we want is a bit like trying to beat this guy in a game of one-on-one.

Once we forgive ourselves—and others—for what happened in the past, we can begin to drop depression. Once we are no longer afraid of the future, and thus have no need control it, we can begin to drop anxiety. We can start living in the present. So, my dear Former Self, I suggest you gather up all you’ve experienced in the past and all that you fear and hope for in the future, and let them both go. Being present is about dropping everything. It is nothingness—a peaceful nothingness. Don’t be afraid of nothingness, because when viewed from another angle it is simply space: the space you need for the right things to flow into your life. Make this your goal: be and live in the present. Not merely by slapping this hippy-esque mantra on a bumper sticker and driving off to the Woodford Folk Festival in an old VW kombi—it’s something you need to continually work at. Living in the moment is deceptive: it sounds so simple, but is one of the hardest things in the world to do. And if you even get halfway there, you’ll be surprised by how rarely you get visited by those two cousins, Anxiety and Depression, anymore.

As much as you might like to allow your mind to revisit the past or escape to the future, I hope you see now that time travelling rarely fixes or changes anything. Donnie Darko travelled back in time—literally—and saved Gretchen’s life, but in the process he lost himself. He sacrificed his own life—depriving the world of his beautiful madness. There’s no reason to give away your energy to the past or the future. Protect it and keep it in the present, don’t let it drain out by constantly using your mind like a time machine. The past and the future can feel very real, but the only thing really worth focusing on is what you have right now. This very moment. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Yours forever in the here and now,

Future Self

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