Past, Present, and Future

In the bestselling book, The Courage to be Disliked, a young man and a philosopher have an engaging dialogue about life’s purpose. At one point in the conversation, the philosopher uses a metaphor of an actor on stage to describe how we should view our past, present, and future.

The past is described as what is behind the actor. Since the actor is facing the audience, she isn’t concerned about what’s behind her. The present is described as the spotlight around her; it’s the space around her that she can see clearly. The future is the space beyond the spotlight which is at best a hazy view of the audience or indistinguishable silhouettes.

A stage as a metaphor of our past, present, and future.

The philosopher, in describing the actor on the stage, compares our lives to being an actor on stage. To start, we have no control over the past. It has happened and no amount of reminiscing will change what has happened. The future is also something we don’t have complete control over. We may be able to affect outcomes but the exact shape that the future will take will depend on a variety of things like the choices we make, the people we meet, or the luck we have.

The only thing we truly have control over is the present – the space we can see around the spotlight. This isn’t a new concept, of course. Teachers and philosophers have advocated this approach to living for millennia.

So what do we have control over in the present?

The ancient Stoics would argue that we only have total control over the goals that we set and the values that we live by. These are not affected by external factors. Sure, the outcomes may differ depending on a variety of factors and we may never meet the goals we set for ourselves. But at least we’ll know that we’ve done what we can control in the present.

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