Carpe Diem: Embracing the Present in the New Year

December 23, 2019 Updated: December 23, 2019

“Forever is composed of nows.”
—Emily Dickinson

In “When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People,” Jeannie Gaffigan, wife and writing partner of comedian Jim Gaffigan, and mother of five, tells the story of her battle with a life-threatening brain tumor described by one doctor as the “size of a pear.” Shot through with humor, her memoir takes us through her long ordeal and is an insightful guidebook for anyone facing major surgery. It is also a thank-you note to family, friends, priests and nuns, and medical personnel who helped her through her ordeal.

In addition, Jeannie shares the transformation of values brought about by her illness. Forced to lie in bed or sit in a chair week after week, this woman who lived by frenetic schedules and deadlines faced the frustration of idleness and infirmity. Others took over her housekeeping chores. For a long time, she couldn’t work. Worst of all, she had to entrust her children to the care of family members and sitters until she could recover.

Near the end of “When Life Gives You Pears,” Jeannie writes: “I’m grateful for the tumor … It’s a strange concept to express gratitude for something that really messed everything up for a while, but had it not been for this catastrophe, I never would have had the opportunity to see what my marriage could survive. I wouldn’t have experienced the same kind of painful separation from my children, which was necessary for me to realize exactly how I could love them without being a drill sergeant.”

Hard Times

Like Jeannie Gaffigan, all of us, at one time or another, face terrible calamities: illness, bankruptcy, divorce, the death of a spouse or child. Recently, for example, a gas leak caused a home near my town to explode and burn to the ground. No one died, but everything the family owned—clothing, favorite books, antiques from grandparents, photograph albums, letters exchanged 50 years ago—disappeared in those flames. All tangible evidence of their past went up in smoke.

Some of you reading these words may even now feel torn apart by some ugly conflict. Perhaps you have no control over the cause of your troubles. The company where you worked downsized, and you were shown the door. The police found your teenage son in possession of drugs and arrested him. Your beloved mother is dying from cancer. 

Or perhaps you yourself are the cause of your distress. You became enraged with your brother’s politics and now refuse to speak to him. You left your spouse for another. You ran up credit card debt trying to pay for a house you could no longer afford. You gossiped about a fellow employee and are now shunned by half your coworkers.

Hope for the Future

So what are we to do when catastrophe strikes?

New Year’s Day is fast approaching, that advance into another calendar year when so many of us hope to change ourselves. Some of us will compile resolutions—to lose weight, give up smoking, exercise more, show our spouse more love and appreciation. Others look to New Year’s wishing for a change in circumstances outside their realm of control: earning more money, advancing in a job, finding a companion. Those suffering some illness of the body or soul hope the New Year will alleviate their agony. 

This anticipation of the future and desire for change can act for the good in our lives, especially when we are in dire circumstances. To survive the travails of the present, we must have hope for the future.

Yet if we are always looking to the future for our salvation, we risk committing another great wrong: failing to live in the present. 

But Live in the Now

The great philosophers and teachers constantly remind their disciples to embrace the day and to forego fears of the future. The Stoics, Jesus, Buddha, and others all stress the importance of embracing the here and now. 

The concept is simple, but the execution is much more difficult. When some great crisis or disaster comes crashing down on our heads, we are forced to face the immediate. We have no other choice. We must deal with the crisis at hand.

But what of ordinary time? 

Let’s imagine a stay-at-home mom of four children. From 4 a.m., when the 2-year-old wakens from a bad dream, to 11 p.m., when she and her husband finally crash into bed, this woman faces endless obligations: the details of childrearing, paying bills, cleaning, cooking meals. The storm of demands rarely offers a free moment. 

She seems to be living very much in the present, as was the pre-tumorous Jeannie Gaffigan.

Or is she? 

Eyes Wide Open

The wise ones of religion and philosophy would say no, not unless she reminds herself every day that whatever she is doing—folding laundry, wiping up Billy’s spilled milk, making sandwiches for her husband’s lunch, running the vacuum—has a higher purpose. To live fully, she has to push aside the clouds of that storm of responsibilities and allow the sunshine to remind her of the honor and worth hidden in her day-to-day duties. 

She must unwrap and look at the present, meaning the gift, she finds in the present. 

As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The things we see every day are the things we never see at all.”

To be fully alive, we must force ourselves to see. 

As we approach the New Year hoping for good things in our future, brighter and better times, it behooves us to keep our feet solidly in the present as well. As the Stoic and Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in “Meditations,” “When you arise in the morning, think of what a special privilege it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”

There was a man who appreciated the moment.

Near the end of “When Life Gives You Pears,” Jeannie Gaffigan writes: 

“I often hear the question, ‘When will you get back to normal?’

“I respond, ‘I’ll never be back to normal.’ You don’t just move on from something like this; it becomes a part of you. You change and grow. You may change into a bitter person and grow in self-pity, or you may use the memory of your suffering as an opportunity to transform your life into something more beautiful and meaningful than you could have ever imagined.”

In deepening her appreciation and love for her work, her family, her husband, and especially her children, Jeanne learned the joy of living in the moment. 

She learned to see. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.