Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


A moment “preserved” in stone © 1989, James A. Clapp Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

A moment “preserved” in stone © 1989, James A. Clapp
Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

Life is chain of moments, most of them of not great or significant moment. But life does have its moments for just about everybody, some get more than others; some get better ones than others. They are moments (there are bad moments as well) that we try to preserve, elongate and replicate; but like all moments, they are fleeting, evanescent, and too soon gone, another spent moment toward some final, dreaded moment.

Moments are not just some ticking away of life; moments are the cellular level of life that is not measured by time, but by experience.  Indeed, in respect of time, some are longer than others—a few seconds of dentist chair time can seem like hours to some; the climactic moments of lovemaking far too brief. So moments are life’s little records of experiences, good or bad.

Do we seem more conscious these days of momentariness? Why has the turn of phrase come into common parlance -– “in the moment”?  First, we should consider that we are the only species (at least those that I have talked to) who are even aware that we living with a finitenumber of moments.  We have all sat and watched a cat, dog, or a cherrystone clam, and envied that they had no awareness that their days too are numbered. But our price for not eating pet food, or being eaten at a clambake, is that we must deal with our mortality. [1]  

Linguistically, in the moment may owe its etiology to acting.  Actors have to get into the moment, the scene, to find the emotion that conveys some character’s experience. So they may have more of a sense of the difference between moments that are actual, and those that must be conjured to create and play a scene.  

Being in the moment might be considered as a good aspect of our humanness, as a form of introspection that pauses us to consider the fullness and meaning of particular experiences. Being in the moment is a definition of one’s own space, as it were, one’s place in the event or the circumstance that enriches the experience.  To be conscious of being in the moment implicitly recognizes one’s contribution and responsibility to what takes place in the moment. There is, of course, a corollary type of moment that one also hears frequently these days—the “senior moment”—that refers to being in a moment, but not knowing which, where or why.

Now where was I?   Oh, yes, writing something about . . . something . . . well, it’ll come to me in a moment.

But there is also something rather self-indulgent in the manner in which that turn of phrase is uttered these days, as though one being in their moment is so fully assertive of their individuality as to demand an exceptional status. We all have our special, individual, moments, but they do not exempt us from social responsibility or concern for others. Of course, sometime moments are imposed upon us, often with undesirable or dire consequences. People can remember with precise detail “the defining moment when” an earthquake struck, a bomb exploded, when something change in their lives so significantly that the moment is like a slash of existential demarcation between all that went before and all that followed.

At a societal level one can readily see how “in the moment” came into common usage in America. Our celebrated individuality, our fascination with each promised “fifteen minutes of fame,” our prospects for being an American Idol, the way our commercialism relentlessly promises the right moment for this or that sort of moment, [2] our obsession with “records” and being number one, to having “been there,” and “done that,” of marking our lives by wearing hats that proclaim “Pearl Harbor Survivor” or being able to proclaim “I was at Woodstock,” or what we were doing when such and such a team won the Super Bowl or World Series. We seem especially concerned with having our moments, to the extent that we almost try to arrange our lives to have them, like existential movie scenes. [3]

It is harder to imagine such attitudes for other societies, some in which life is so de-individuated, so conformed to overriding social norms that people rarely “get a moment to themselves.”   If not the exigencies of difficult life circumstances, then the circadian regularities and conventions of religious and social mores can so dominate individuals as to leave few “personal” moments for them. Such moments, such as they are, become “stolen moments” in a regulated rhythm of times for prayer, political regimentation, or just plain economic drudgery.  

Let us “take a moment” to consider that either type of society might bring upon itself a life-changing moment of great consequence by the manner in which it regards the “management” of individual experiences or moments.   The rigid society that allows little room for individuality and self-reflection runs the risk of being caught by inability to develop self-reflection, by its inflexibility.   Yet, it appears that the other extreme, a society in which people spend more and more time in their own moments, also courts dangers.   We see this to some extent in the three main global dangers that threaten American society: global warming, global terror, and global resource depletion.   All of these concerns require a degree of social solidarity that is eroded by a society in which being “in the moment” is practically regarded as an inalienable right.   It is rather astonishing that America has been conducting a war in Iraq for five years with no discernable sacrifice on the part of its citizens.  No moments appear to be surrendered over energy resources as the rising costs of fossil fuels seems to have produced no reduction in demand or usage.   Global warming, easily the most serious and potentially catastrophic threat (and related in part to energy resources) has had no corresponding and commensurate reduction in individual “moments” to change behavior and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We should also be cognizant of the fact that Nature also “has its moments,” and in the case of global warming, although we may blithely go along have our own moments, some of them contributing to the rise in temperature, there will assuredly come perhaps the most significant moment in earth history—the moment, scientists tell us that may be sooner upon us than we think, the moment earth temperature reaches an irreversible and self-reinforcing tipping point.   At that moment, all of humankind will be in a moment together, and there will be very few, if any, people who will want to be in it thereafter.

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.10.2007)

[1] I have also heard that animals have no sense of time in the way that we do. After we leave our dogs for a few days it doesn’t matter whether its days or months, supposedly they lose all sense of time. Anyway, I’ve never seen a dog with a watch.

[2] One erectile dysfunction commercial promises a product that will have its customer “ready” when the “moment is right.”

[3] “In the moment” has a popular New Age aspect to it. A few web sites use the phrase in a positive, up-beat way to promote self-reflection and meditation. There are also, at this writing at least four record albums titled “In the Moment.”