I’ve had a few momentary flashes lately of what I would call a sense of drifting melancholy. For instance, yesterday I was taking my daughter along grocery shopping and she wanted to look at the fish. I was trying to get back at a certain time from shopping, but I estimated we had a few minutes for her to stand and look at them. She’s still very small and very adorable, and as I watched her point and kneel and look and say “fischies!” I could only smile. At the same time as she was pointing, however, I saw a black moor drifting in the water, flapping its fins just often enough to stay stationary against the filter’s current. Both adrift and stationary, I stared at that fish and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that this little moment was already ending even as it was happening.
Adults don’t often stare at the fish tanks. We’ve seen fish, we’ve eaten fish – maybe some hobbyists keep them at home, but the ordinary person finds fish a spent pleasure. Here is my daughter though, excited, pointing and cooing at them. A part of me wants, as a jaded but compassionate adult, to humor her and feign excitement. Another part of me realizes how deeply incorrect I am – she’s right, fish are exciting. I forgot due to familiarity, but the newness of young life reminds us that the idea of novelty is just a rationalization of our own boredom with things that are intrinsically beautiful and delightful. She constantly reminds me how thrilling it is to be alive. Augustine said in the Confessions that “…it was your gift to me that I exist.” I suppose authentic existence is a perpetual sense of novelty, pursuing an infinite God with no terminus of the new and beautiful.
Even as I tried to take hold of the moment in my attention and commit it to memory without being absent, that sense of melancholy seeped back in, almost spoiling it. I thought, “this moment will be gone soon – she will grow up, I will grow old, and eventually the joy of being here with the fish will be rendered into dust.” I had had a similar experience a week ago or so, although I forget the context, but there was a small comfort offered to me from Plutarch, who said:
“When our eyes now are dazzled by things too bright, we turn them away and ease them by looking at fresh green grass, but our minds we keep strained over painful things, and compel them to brood on unhappy ideas, wrenching them by force away from what is pleasanter. … like small children … we, when fortune robs us of a treasure, wail and mourn and treat everything else as worthless to us.”
I was staring into the painful reality of time passing, to the point where it was clouding my eye, it was wrenching my mind from the present – that is – from the joy of the moment with my daughter. I was mourning like a small child over the utterly mundane fact of time’s passage, treating as worthless the happiness I in fact had. There is no deep philosophical or theological point to be made here I suppose. I think the Buddhists call this kind of attempt to be mentally present and engaged in particular moments “mindfulness.” I recalled, just now, that one Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote something to the effect of considering the present moment to be a sacrament. As an Anglican and someone accustomed to sacramental thinking (but also with an eye towards not using the term too loosely) I should like to read de Caussade, maybe to help me consecrate and live inside these moments as fully as I can.
In the meantime, Plutarch’s advice is a continual reminder to behave as an adult – not in considering fish boring – but in treating what I do have, fleeting though it may be, as the true treasure and sacrament.