Yesterday is gone forever and tomorrow is impossible to predict. Both the past and the future seem vanishingly faint and ghostly when compared to the earthy solidity of this minute. Yet virtually all of us, with the exception of newborn infants, operate with some image of the future. It is one of the signs of being adult that we can predict what is likely to happen, and make decisions based on our understanding of past events. To function well we need some memory of the past, and some ability to imagine the likely future.
In a famous experiment, a group of little children were given the choice of having one marshmallow immediately, or being given two marshmellows if they could wait till later. Some kids understood the principle of delayed gratification for higher rewards, and waited. Others with less impulse control went for the immediate taste thrill. Those who could wait were found to do so much better in later life. They were better able to study, practice and work towards distant goals. The others tended to prefer cash in the hand and probably indulged in risky sexual behaviour as well.
To have an good working model of the future is a predictor for long-term happiness. On the other hand, people who sacrifice too much for the future may never live to enjoy it. The mortgage, the post-graduate studies, the goal of retirement can easily suck the blood out of the present, and turn it into an antechamber to nowhere. It’s all a matter of balance.
The future is never more than an ever-changing mental image, but it shapes the present nonetheless. Most of us wouldn’t go to work today if we thought we were going to die tomorrow. Our image of the future may be vague or clear. It may be well-grounded or full of fantasy. We may ignore the future out of fear or laziness, and try to ‘live for the present’, or we may meticulously plot it out the possibilities. The future as we imagine it influences us, consciously or unconsciously, whether we like it or not.
The future can very scary indeed. If we’ve been around for long enough, we know that catastrophic illness and other disasters can happen to anyone at any age. Years ago I saw a young woman who had been diagnosed and successfully operated on for a brain tumour, all in the space of six weeks. Months later, she was still terribly distressed. She repeatedly asked me ‘But I will live for the next forty or fifty years, won’t I?’ I couldn’t reassure her. Her bubble of invulnerability had been popped forever.
We can’t know the future in any detail, but we can get a much better understanding of the way we picture it. Firstly, what kind of future are we talking about? We know the Earth will eventually plunge into the sun, but none of us worry about that. Similarly, we hardly need to worry about life on Earth. Even if we trigger off a nuclear holocaust, millions of life forms are bound to survive to repopulate the planet. As we know from past cosmic disasters, life itself is virtually indestructible, once it gets a foothold.
The future of our species looks ever more vulnerable despite our knowledge and power, and yet even this matter doesn’t seem worth much thought. The future only grabs our attention when we consider how it will affect us personally in the foreseeable years ahead. In practical terms, the future for me only extends for another few decades, until I die.
To plan for the future involves evaluating a host of variables, and guessing how they will interact over time. We’ll never get it exactly right, but we can make a pretty good go of it. Some things are certainties (ageing, death, taxes); some are near certainties (sickness, global warming); some are plausible possibilities (financial success, happiness, catastrophic illness, accidents or war); some are conceivable but unlikely (fame, enlightenment, slavery, sudden death).
Furthermore our personal future is very dependent on the way we have behaved in the past. We are creatures of habit. We find it very reassuring to repeat what we have always done, whether it has been good for us or not. Our character and our natural proclivities are an unavoidable part of the mix.
It can make our heads ache if we try to weigh up all the variables prior to an important decision. Whenever we try to plan or shape our future, our efforts often fail for a good reason: there are just too many variables. As a result, we commonly give up the effort and slip back into simpler default positions
Many people adopt a fatalistic approach. ‘Whatever happens is meant to be. God has a plan. It’s all for the best. It’s my karma. I can’t do anything about it. I was destined to be poor. Whatever will be, will be. ‘
There is a whole body of spirituality that tries to find cosmic meanings in particular events. ‘I must have broken my leg because I kicked someone to death in a past life’ (not because I fell down a flight of stairs while drunk). This leads to the kind of sanctified helplessness that religious leaders love to see in their followers. A drinking problem can be solved. Bad karma can’t, at least not in this lifetime.
Other people ignore the future as much as they can, whether out of indolence or dread. ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ This usually guarantees them a miserable old age if they live long enough.
Others ignore the future by slogging away as if they will live forever. They power through insomnia, stress and sickness towards some long-forgotten, every-receding goal. A lady once came to me for advice after being diagnosed with an advanced cancer. I knew she was a workaholic, so I asked her about her work. ‘I’ve thought about cutting it back a little’, she said.
Others see the future as a realm of limitless fantasy. ‘I can be whatever you want to be, if I believe in myself! If Oprah can do it, so can I. Someday my boat will come in. Someday my prince will come.’ Hope and faith can give an ecstatic high, and may occasionally tip the balance in a positive sense, but fantasy is best in a cheerleader role. It is too unreliable to be the captain of the ship.
Only certain kinds of people manage to virtually escape the influence of the future: little children, spiritual seekers, layabouts and hippies, impulsive teenagers, some retirees, and those who are carefree or rich enough to be on perpetual holiday. In another context completely, the chronically ill and elderly may have no future worth considering.
The future is usually an inescapable part of our psychic make-up. We shouldn’t ignore it, or give it too much weight, or feel helpless in front of it. Nor should we burden it with irrational hopes. But we can certainly do things that are likely to contribute to a happy, healthy future, even if they don’t guarantee it.
It’s always our choice how many coffin nails we smoke, how many danish pastries we consume, how many late nights we spend at the office or partying. There’s no mystery here. The only difficulty is in making a strong enough gut-connection between today’s pleasure and tomorrow’s hangover to makes a difference to our future behaviour.
The seeds of the future are to be found in the present, and much of it is completely within our control. Whatever happens to us in the years ahead, our best insurance is to be as healthy as we can today, to love the people we are with, to appreciate being alive and to reflect on what we are doing. We can do this haphazardly, as we scramble compulsively from one activity to another, or we can give it the time and space it truly deserves. If we give attention to what really matters today, the future will probably look after itself.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2007