Time is infinite, but divisible by three: past, present, and future.

For many, the past is full of regrets, bittersweet memories, and fanciful what-ifs. The future is unpredictable, evanescent, and, as we grow older, can be laden with anxieties. The best remedy is to stay focused on the present, the beautiful, ecstatic now. Only the present seems completely real.

Achieving now, being in the moment, this very moment and none other, is the goal of meditation, the appeal of ecstasy, and the attractiveness and payoff of hard work.

But of course, focusing on now is hard work. Now is a shape shifter, forever sliding by, moving away from our busy and distracted minds, transient and ephemeral. Despite our best efforts at concentration and mindfulness to help us focus on the present, our attention tends to wander and creep like Sandberg’s fog, or sometimes to rage and careen like Dylan’s hurricane.

What exactly is “the present”? Psychologists say we apprehend it as a rolling three seconds or so, a little band of immediacy that recedes immediately into the past. Tests demonstrate that our brain tends to perceive now a second or two after the actual moment. But when confronted by extreme danger or exalted by great beauty or distracted by intense activity, time seems to slow and almost to stop.

One way of pinning down where our minds go, and why, is to look at time through the lens of age.

Older people tend to dwell in the past, looking at a rear-view mirror that gets ever larger and more encompassing. For the elderly, the past can be a more exciting and satisfying frame of reference than the future or the present, a time “of blessed memory,” as our grandparents liked to say. From their perspective tomorrow is fraught with the loss of friends and the inevitability of decline, and today is often a dull menu of repetitive and mundane chores.

Adults tend to dwell in the moment, but frequently not a satisfying one. Their present is often frenetic, harum-scarum, and challenging. They have so many immediate concerns and responsibilities: making breakfast, paying bills, helping a child tie a shoelace or finish homework, attending to aging parents, completing a project at work or around the house. Planning for the future can be hard, and reminiscing about the past a luxury for which they have little or no time.

Young people and children live in a present burdened by the future and its weighty, life-altering decisions. Who will I become when I grow up? Who will I settle down with? What will I do with my life?

What is missing, no matter what age or stage, is what we all truly seek: dwelling in true, blissful, and productive now, the “zone,” which is not taught in schools and rarely achieved in life.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...