Recently, I’ve thought more about the future than I ever ever have before. As I do my best to bumble through life as tactfully as I can, I’ve noticed, with an increased frequency, the subtle bubbling up existential speculation within my thoughts and conversations. An increase in these thoughts might come across as somewhat surprising considering that you could say that the focus of my chosen career is itself “existential speculation”. Nonetheless, I’ve found myself reading more and more articles about climate change or economic forecasts with a sense of urgency in the same way I used to read analysis of the A’s prospects for the upcoming season. Admittedly, and maybe somewhat obviously, the catalyst for most of these internal colloquies is likely the a consequence of becoming a father and the imminent arrival of our second child – it’s not just me anymore. There are now in my life little humans, whom I care immeasurably about, and who’s own lives will extend far beyond mine.
So the future, what do we do with it?
In some ways we have absolutely no control of the future.
In other ways, how we live now and the decisions we make directly affect the future.
In many ways the future has tremendous potential to offer a better life for those who inherit it.
In many other ways the future looks more complicated, challenging, and potentially disastrous for those who come after us.
See, there is this perception that the future should always be brighter than the past. And while I generally consider myself an optimist, there are many historical instances that prove this perception wrong. Entire societies have achieved high levels of living standards only to be brought back to the stone ages by war, disaster, or mismanagement a generation later.
So what world will my children inherit?
What world will their children inherit?
Will we keep wrestling with systemic issues like poverty and environmental destruction?
Or will the arc of history continue to bend towards justice?
As I’ve considered these conversations I’ve started to observe how we tend to practically engage with their ramifications. It appears that we mostly head in one of two directions: panic or avoidance. If you survey the digital universe (blogs, web-zines, social media), you’ll most assuredly find this to be true. We as a species tend to respond to the things that are beyond our control by either running from them, or obsessing over them. For evidence of the obsessive response, just google Harold Camping, or one of the countless religious groups who’s birth is a direct result of apocalyptic predictions. For evidence of the avoidance response, ask pretty much any dentist the percentage of people who floss regularly even after being told that flossing could spare them future discomfort. And of these two tendencies, it’s my opinion that most of us choose the later, we mostly ignore the future. Brunch, Netflix, and mouth-wash are just easier.
For me, at this moment, I can’t really ignore the future. I also can’t get too worked up about it. The reality is that our species will likely find a way to keep on going, and that many of the cosmic problems we worry about are beyond my personal control. While doomsday predictions capture the headlines, their claims don’t help me love my family or set workout goals. And while most major existential threats are beyond my control, I do have some agency over my life and its effects on those around me.
Like many of humanity’s philosophical binaries, I think the most honest and helpful approach to the problem of the future is not in an either or framework, but in a both and. As much as it might go against our natural tendency, which prefers to choose one response over another, I wonder if we should approach the future with a healthy dose of reasonable panic tied together with a sense of wonder and adventure. Let me unpack what I mean for a moment.
Reasonable Panic, Wonder, & Adventure
The problem of the future is a real one. We have limited control over what tomorrow may or may not bring. To deny this would be a denial of what life is actually like. While I understand that most of us are just trying to get through the day, I don’t think we need to do so by pretending that our world is not chaotic and filled with challenges. We should instead be real about life’s unpredictability in a way that acknowledges our individual finite-ness and specific responsibilities. Yes life is crazy, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we’re each able to have a positive impact on a limited number of things like ourselves, our work, and our communities. And when we’re reasonable about what we might take responsibility for, it may help us to focus our panic towards the areas where we have capacity to impact, and do so positively.
But it’s not just about refining our focus to the things within our control to affect. I’ve noticed that if we approach life with a sober sense of reasonable panic it may allow us to enjoy the gifts of each moment. When we acknowledge the messiness of our world, but focus on the things that we can actually have an impact on, I actually think potential is created not only to bring about positive change, but also, and maybe more importantly, to make us more appreciative and present to the good things in life. It’s true, there are wars being raged around the world and our health might take a turn for the worse at any moment, but these truths, if we allow them, can teach us to receive the good in life as precious.
This is where the sense of wonder and adventure come in. When we allow life’s craziness to point to life’s miraculousness, we have an increased capacity to delight in the taste of our favorite meal, notice the twinkle in the eyes of our loved ones, or enjoy the gift of a sunset with deeper urgency and gratitude. Behind each smell, color, sound, or encounter is a story, a soul, or an adventure. These experiences, framed by the uncertainty of tomorrow, become eternal moments of of possibility and potential, ultimately towards some sort of glimpse of what the the poets, mystics, storytellers and philosophers have called love.
My hunch is that this is the Thing under the things of life. The potential to experience, notice, give, or encounter love is the grandest journey. Here is the rub though- our ability to receive life as a gift worth beholding seems to be based on choice. It’s up to each of us whether we’ll choose to coast through life avoiding its complexity, to become overwhelmed with things we cannot control, OR allow reality’s turmoil to awaken us to its utter improbability.
I do not know what my children’s life will look like. I have no idea what catastrophes will come, which social norms will be disrupted, or how many World Series titles the A’s will win. What I do know is that the miracle of consciousness can be an invitation to experience and behold love. That’s enough.