Poet Longfellow preached this doctrine of vigorous action. He asks us not to trust the future, however pleasant; he advises us to forget the past that has ceased to be an active force in life. He urges upon us the need for working in the actual present,—for the present alone is alive with all its possibilities.
The advice is ideal. We often shed sound and salutary tears for our past mistakes. We often feel unduly elated by our rosy future prospects. In short, we invariably look before and after. Both attitudes are wrong. For the one brings depression and so destroys the will to action. The other attitude induces dreamful ease and repose and deadens urge to work. What is wanted is to be up and doing, and not to while away the precious moments of the present, in vain fears and idle hopes.
We have to concentrate on the present. For the present is something very much alive. It is immediately before us. But our present is a touch-and-go affair. At the next moment it will be past and irrevocably gone. So the passing moment has to be seized by the forelock and turned to account, i.e. fully utilized. And it belongs to the present that places before us real problems. There is nothing imaginary or prospective about it. Every moment we are up against unforeseen difficulties or perhaps the hostility of interested people. We have to take a measure of these. These are the living realities of life. We should gird up our loins and grapple with these immediate problems of life boldly and vigorously.
The poet not only tells us to act in the living present, but he indicates how it might be done. We must bury the dead past; must refuse to be tempted by the visions of a colorful or rosy future. We will surely win if we know that God is overhead: He helps us if we help ourselves. Reliance on God is done only to create a feeling of confidence.
This gospel of work is most essential for us. Man’s life in the world has only a limited span, It enjoins on him certain duties and responsibilities. He should not shirk or try to avoid them. He will postpone, We will delay. But whenever he feels this temptation to postpone, these ringing words of the poet will come to him as corrective and an inspiration.
The greatness of a man is measured by the amount of work he has done to his credit. It has been truly said, “We live in deeds, not in years.” To do the maximum work it is necessary to fill every moment of the immediate present with “some work of noble note.”
To act in the living present has other advantages. It makes for steady and continuous progress. Let us remember that the heights of greatness were not reached by our leaders by a sudden flight. It involved long, laborious and patient work from day to day. If, therefore, we waste our time thinking of our past and our future and allowing the present to slip by, with nothing done, it will not win for us the noble goal.
But to act in the living present does not mean to ignore the past or to be indifferent to the impending future and its consequences. The lessons of the past have a timeless value for future guidance. And without a consciousness of the future, the present may turn to be a blind lane. Johnson used to say that we purchase the future with the present. The tree of the present has its roots in the past to bear fruit in the future. Indeed —
The future works our great man’s purpose;
The present is enough for common souls,
Who, never looking forward, are indeed
Mere clay, wherein the boot prints of the age
Are petrified forever.