Like most Sunday mornings, Yvonne and I were blending reading, dog and cat snuggling, talking, and watching the CBS Sunday Morning show, when this segment featuring Keith Urban captured my attention. I’m a fan and was enjoying learning more about his childhood, career ups and downs, struggles with alcoholism, his view that life began with Nicole, and insights into his creative process. But at the very end, Keith brought me up short with this:
I’ve always had that feeling — I have for many, many years – that everything is now. This is all there is, is now. In the moment.
To understand why Keith’s own words and actions show us this is both literally true and utterly false — especially for creative lives like his — you may want to pause and watch the video. Then we’ll explore the paradox together.
You can also read the interview text here.
Human Evolution & The Paradox of When We Are
How’s this for serendipity? Just a few minutes before I got pulled in by the intro to the Keith Urban segment, I finished reading Book I in Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Book I examines the evolution of play and social behaviors, in animals and humans, and ultimately art, creativity, narrative, and fiction in humans. It ends with this:
[F]ictional storytelling … helps us understand ourselves, to think — emotionally, reflectively, imaginatively — about human behavior, to step outside the immediate pressures and the automatic reactions of the moment. … Old and new stories and characters open up and populate possibility space. All these fictions make us the one species not restricted to the here and now, even if that must be where we act and feel — and imagine.
Boyd’s analysis ranges over millennia of human existence and centuries of study from Aristotle to the latest in cognitive science, so let’s boil it down to this: a primary function of our enlarged brains enables us to remember events (real or fictional) from the past and apply that information to solving problems in the present, partly by running simulations of possible future outcomes. And art, which he describes as “cognitive play with pattern,” operates as a “Darwin machine” to power our ability to live in the past, present, and future. All at once.
What’s all this got to do with Keith Urban and country music?
Drummer Dad, Seeds of Songs, & Pit Bull
Despite living in the moment — Keith is, of course, literally correct that we have nowhere else to “act and feel” — the creative processes he talked about and demonstrated in the interview neatly displayed our evolved capacity for playing with past and future in the present.
Example: Asked about how he starts working on a song idea, he “says he can still almost hear his dad keeping the beat when he’s writing a song.” “And then everything starts to sort of dance together, and melody comes.” And next that snippet of rhythm from his Dad and the past becomes “Gone Tomorrow Here Today” on his new album.
Another example: While working on “Sun Don’t Let Me Down” he described an organic process in which he thought about how it would work if he brought in the rapper Pit Bull. You can almost hear him running simulations in his head, exploring “possibility space” to see what the future might look/sound like, before deciding to go ahead and ask about the collaboration. Would Pit Bull be interested? Would he be fun to work with? Would the fans be attracted to this creative thread?
Bottom line for me: Yes, live in the moment. As we must. But we should also be aware of our capacity for learning from the past and the possibilities of the future — without getting lost or sidetracked in either — to make the most of our present. And never stop refining that capacity.