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There's a passage in Neal Stevenson’s sci fi novel Snow Crash in which the protagonist, Hiro, who has been wearing a pair of special glasses that project an idyllic image onto his bleak environment, finds that his brain and eyes have adjusted and he can no longer see the projection, but is looking straight through at naked reality.
On my first week in India, back in 2017, I had Hiro’s experience in reverse. At first, I was overwhelmed by the ubiquitous ugliness: the crowds, heaps of rubbish, deafening and dangerous traffic, sewage, rotting litter and exhaust fumes. But, soon, like Stevenson's protagonist, my senses adjusted and I looked—and heard and smelled—straight past, barely registering those things: focused instead on the lime-green flashes of parakeets and the spreading canopies of mango and Ashoka trees; the stern Persian gaze of stone lamussas; the intricate wooden balconies and grassy roofs of old houses in the cantonment; the gold and jewel-toned river of sarees as women poured out of the ladies’ carriage of the commuter train and across the Charni Road railway bridge in the warm evening air; the fragrant scents of temple sandalwood; chaat steaming in Bund-cake shapes at street stalls; and cardamom chai poured in a high arc from glass to glass to cool.
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But those early days in India were in many ways a blur.
I had no idea how much my eyesight had declined over the years. I only knew, increasingly, that reading for long periods gave me a headache; that I was beginning to find peering at a cinema screen exhausting and that if my friends and I were waiting for a bus together they would start delving into pockets and rummaging in bags for their bus cards—long before I could make out the glowing red of the numbers. I had bought a guide to Indian trees and spent a lot of time looking upward at the canopies trying to distinguish palmate and pinnate, but to my eye one tree’s foliage blended into another, as if they had been drawn with pastel crayons and smudged with a careless finger. Then, one day, I finally realised that I probably needed glasses and sought out an optician.
On my first day wearing varifocals, I was disoriented and seasick. Going down a flight of stairs was a dizzying adventure. The road was a treacherous place: I couldn’t judge how far away the cars and mopeds were and to navigate safely across felt like trying to solve a complicated chess puzzle. When I glanced down at the street, to avoid obstacles, the world looked as if it were underwater. But the next morning, when I put my glasses on, I found that a miracle had happened. Suddenly, I was watching a 3D movie with those little cardboard specs on—except in real life. Things were cleaner, crisper and, above all, more layered. I felt like a Medieval painter who had suddenly discovered single-point perspective. The world had depth! Near, middle and far popped out at me, each distinct in its geometry. And, looking up overhead, I could distinguish and name the trees—Ashoka, mango, acacia, persimmon—with ease. When I took my glasses back off, I was dismayed by the fuzzy blur that used to be my normal view, before I became a bespectacled cyborg.
When you wear varifocals, your eyes and brain make constant microadjustments and your head tiny movements to enable you to look through the correct part of your glasses, so that whatever you are looking at is in focus at all times. But deciding how to direct our gaze in life—how to balance our focus between past, present and future is a far trickier problem.
We should focus firmly on the present, we are often told by the self-help gurus. This philosophy has spawned mantras like no one on their death bed ever wishes they had spent more time at the office. But this advice is only helpful if you find it difficult to relinquish control, if you are wound too tightly and need to be loosened. Whereas I am less a spring than one of those old-fashioned slinkies that you can set at the top of a flight of stairs and, with a nudge, watch it somersault and slither its way to the bottom.
If anything, I need to spend more time at the office—or, rather, at the computer in my bedroom, which is my working-from-home equivalent—since it is my efforts there that secure my daily livelihood and, I hope, will keep me fed, warm and sheltered into the future. Struggling with some WordPress glitch, reshaping someone’s awkward sentence or plotting out business expenditures on a spreadsheet—those kinds of thing won’t provide the fondest memories on my dying day, but they are my best means of trying to ensure that my life up until that point—when all needs are over—is a reasonably comfortable one and that I don’t sink into desperation or penury. I have spent very little time in that metaphorical office in the past, repeatedly choosing adventure over duty (I’ve written about this here) and I regret it. Bitterly.
And however much you may attempt to live in the moment, your knowledge of your actions in the past and your projections of what might happen in the future are always part of that present moment. As Rosamond Lehmann writes in her novel of that name, the present is like a note in music—given meaning only by its context, by its place within a sequence of sounds that together create the melody.
When I’m dancing—really dancing—a three-and-a-half-minute song can fill my entire mental horizon, blocking the views of the past and its regrets and the future and its fears as effectively as a black-out curtain. Great dancing is like entering another dimension, a sealed-off space. It’s an experience of Csikszentmihalyian flow, of being completely enthralled by the action itself, by the doing, without any regard to progress, teleology or results. It’s like inhabiting a shell-world, with a god at its heart—like the planet that Iain M. Banks so beautifully describes in his novel, Matter. It’s an onion—more pungent with every torn-off layer. There’s no forward motion: just down, down, down, deeper and deeper in.
And yet this same obsessive focus on the near, the now, the present can also be a self-destructive spiral. It’s the same myopic impulse that keeps a gambling addict at the slot machine in a pair of adult nappies, reaching out blindly for drinks and junk food from time to time and otherwise as laser-focused on pressing that button as a rat in a Skinner box. The same impulse led eighteenth-century dandies to wager away their estates in a single delirious night.
I’ve always found it difficult to strike a balance between the distant view and the near one, between looking towards and preparing for the future—a future that, after all, I can’t predict and that may scupper my plans and make my efforts obsolete—and focusing on the near at hand, the enjoyment of this moment, here and now. And, however I strike that balance, there’s always the danger that I might allow my guesses about the future to devalue the present and vice versa. When I look at my own life with a future-focused eye, I see a woman of 53, unhappily single, with a precarious income and without property or a pension plan—surely, heading for disaster. But when I focus back in on the present, I find myself writing this in my cozy bedroom in a cheerful, rambling old Victorian house on the edge of a forest, which I share with old friends, after spending the morning doing fulfilling and enjoyable work. How can we, then, switch focal lengths effectively: look through the near-sighted pane at the present moment, without recklessly disregarding future consequences and then through the far-sighted area of glass at the future, without becoming an ascetic, a workaholic or a compulsive worrier?
In his book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Nicholas Christakis recommends a dual vision of our fellow human beings (he has talked to me about this in more detail here). There is value in the close-up view of individuals and in the zoomed-out, astronaut’s view of humanity as a species on our blue-green home. (The trouble is when we regard people from an intermediate distance and see only groups, factions, nations and parties.) What’s valuable, it seems to me, when looking at at our own lives and when looking at other people is the ability to keep shifting focus: to revel in the intricate detail we can make out from nearby without losing sight of the far-off whole.
I don’t know if I will ever manage this but, in this second half of my life, I’m going to try. Hopefully, it will be as easy as getting used to varifocals. It might just take a little more practice.
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