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February 19, 2012

Future Perfect

Illustration by Kunal Kundu.

It’s when we forgo the retelling of our histories and let go of our safe perches that the most magic can happen. Sarita Mandanna urges us to stand on the edge of that lily pad, kick back our heels, take a leap of faith and soar

It was an advanced bond Maths class with an excellent professor to boot, so I was paying particular attention, when he said something that made me sit up even straighter. He put up a graphic on the wall. It was a frog, seated on a lily pad in the middle of a lily pond. Ahead, behind, and all around the frog were lily pads of every conceivable shape and size. Each pad, the professor, explained, represented a potential direction that the frog might take. Where did we think the frog would go next?

“The point is,” he continued, tapping at a pad at random, “the past is irrelevant. The only thing that determines where the frog could next jump is where it is now.”

He was speaking in the context of transitional probabilities and bond valuation, but, think for a moment of the profoundness of that hypothesis. All that matters, while figuring out the future choices for the frog, is its position right now. It doesn’t matter how that frog got there – neither the path it took, nor the
time taken – the only thing that impacts whether it goes left, right, straight ahead, backwards, or some permutation thereof, is where it is right now. Imagine the applicability of that statement to everyday life, of being able to apply that philosophy to our key relationships, our most important decisions. To sit on that lily pad, fully in the moment, and consider the possibilities that lie ahead based solely on where you are right now. No matter the specific ups and downs of our personal histories, to be able to embrace each new experience wholeheartedly, without trying to fit it into pre-fabricated parameters or superimposing a pattern upon it, based on our pasts.

Remember back when there wasn’t that much past to speak of? Remember that first, crazy love? The untarnished thrill of it, candy cane days and rainbow hours, when you jumped out of bed each morning, a grin on your face and couldn’t wait to get started on the day? Whatever happened to that joie de vivre, that unsullied optimism? Life happened, that’s what. Good, bad, ugly – life happens, and we grow jaded, recognising that rainbows are not all they are cracked up to be, and candy goes straight to our hips anyway. We become cautious, evaluating each future step against that which has been endured, carting our histories about like so much invisible baggage. We sit on that lily pad and where once we might have leapt blithely into the unknown, now we dither, warily testing the water and endlessly debating our next move.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for experience. I’m not for a moment suggesting that we blunder through life in some fog of self delusion, doing the same things over and over and wondering why the results are no different than in the past. Learn from your mistakes, for God’s sake, do get wiser – it’s the one upside after all, of growing older! To elaborate on our Kermit the Frog analogy, if, as you hop your way across the pond, you come to realise that the smaller pads are not particularly sturdy or supportive, well, the next time you leap, steer clear of the lesser ones. Size, after all, does matter.

Learning from experience is key; where most of us falter is in trying to predict the future based on too literal a retelling of the past. In other words, to misquote Hamlet – there are more variables in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are input in our personal projection models. Every relationship, each new experience is unique, and by wearing safety goggles as we search, we can sometimes miss out on real possibility. We evaluate the lily pads out there, and based on experience, we discard not only the ones that are tattered, but the ones that could be, may be, perhaps headed that way too. And in that sweeping, overly cautious assessment, we might be discounting options that would have led to entirely new paths altogether.

Living, loving – both come easy when you are newer at it. It’s different when you’ve missed your footing once or twice, and have the scars to show for it. It takes faith, to continue to believe in Prince Charming when you’ve kissed your share of frogs and they’ve all turned out to be toads. We want to believe, we so want to, but it’s hard. A couple of years ago, I was recently engaged and talking with a colleague, when “Do you love him?” she asked abruptly. Taken aback as I was, she continued without waiting for a response. “It’s best not to love them too much anyway. That way, they can’t hurt you.”

We grow wary of being wounded and develop these narrow ideas of what the ideal relationship and our ideal lives ought to be, skittering away at the slightest deviation. We sit hunched on our lily pads, looking over our shoulders and mapping the littered past; when we finally make a move forward, we are so bogged down with the weight of life jackets and all the ‘just in case’, and ‘in the event of’, that we never quite manage the leaps of faith that we once made so effortlessly.

It takes conviction and it takes courage to hunker down on that lily pad and rather than looking backwards, remain focused on all that is yet to come. To still the dissenting voices of caution and safety and give chance a chance instead. A close girlfriend recently got divorced, after nearly a decade of marriage, kids, nannies, a dog and a beautiful home in Princeton. “You poor thing,” I began, and she cut me off. “I’m fine,” she said simply. “And there is so much out there still.” She’s out there with a vengeance, enjoying her children, incorporating a new company, planning a trip to the Amazon, leaping into the dating pool, and all with the biggest smile on her face. I’m sure there are difficult moments in private, but I am equally certain that this woman views the pond around her with a minimal amount of baggage. Not through safety goggles, and neither through rose tinted glasses, but with clear eyed, 20/20 vision, her gaze fixed not on where she once was, but firmly on the horizon. I know she’s going to be fine. More than fine, actually, she’s going to do great, and I am rooting for every splash she makes.

It’s when we forgo the retelling of our histories, it’s precisely when we let go of the safety of our perches that the most magic can happen. Stand on the edge of that lily pad, and kicking back your heels, take a leap of faith and soar. Just how or why you got to where you are at this moment is hardly as important, after all, as where you next decide to go.

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