A Few Thoughts on “the Future”

As one endeavors to think about something as given and as common as the future, one will inevitably, I think, run into some interesting thoughts. First, “the future” comes off as a kind of paradox. It is a paradox because whenever people refer to it they always preface it with a definite article. What can be so definite about something as fluid, unpredictable, and shape shifting as the future? Granted, it is an idea of possibility and we need to think of it somehow. But I propose that people refer to the future in such definite terms because no one thinks of the future as a completely open-ended ellipsis, as it really is, but choose to think of it as something they can change, something they can forge to their desire. So when they think of the future they think of their projected future, as they desire it to be. The future is, therefore, always a deeply personal thing. Thinking of it is an exercise of self-conception and imaginative self-creation; one invests a personal, possessive quality in this idea.

Secondly, the future is ambivalent, having a bipolar quality. Because people see themselves as free agents, able to fight against the chaos of pure potentiality in the hope of securing their ideal, they ascribe a weighty role to “the future,” while at the same time dreading its precariousness. This exertion becomes the source of all our sinister fears and fulfilling hopes: not only the possibility of overcoming and succeeding but also the possibility of failure and disappointment are all rolled into one definite article. Both these delightful and crushing outcomes not only keep students up at night—often quite literally—but, I propose, also drive most everything we do. In light of this conflict, we bear an overwhelmingly heavy burden to bring this defined future about. This ambivalence has a long pedigree in the imagination of the Western mind: a few extremes can be seen through the Enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot, who believed in the (eventual) perfectibility of man through gradual progress with the ideal society following not too far off, and, on the opposite end, by writers like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, the Jeremiad prophets of doom and gloom.

Third, it seems to me that the future by definition is always tragically out of reach: people, especially people attending Berkeley, rarely stop projecting themselves upon their future (I for one have never met a student without ambitions in my time here), which makes for an ever-receding goal. Once you graduate high school with distinction, there is college; once college is over with there is law school or that particular company or position; then there is always the promotion, the corner office etc. It turns out to be the proverbial carrot suspended in front of a mule, something that is always out of reach, but bears enough attraction for us to keep at it. Pink Floyd captured this sentiment in their eighth and most famous album, Dark Side of the Moon. From that album, the song Time resounds (I hope the reader will pardon the cliché of quoting a ubiquitous rock band, but in this case it is too good to pass up):

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

The future never quite arrives, but ambition following ambition, goal following goal, hold it just enough in reach to keep one busy and pushing along. This does not mean that one will not feel partially fulfilled or accomplished, but simply that the future never arrives as the ideal someone has conceived. Reality never quite fits the picture. The ideal future seems to be around the corner of an unending spiral staircase.

I would venture to say that it is not only the few decades of this life that concern those thinking of the future, but also the time beyond it as well. This might seem counterintuitive in a culture that no longer recognizes the “afterlife.” However, whichever creed one does (or does not) subscribe to, there remains a preoccupation with the time after one’s death. This is, perhaps, why people set up monuments, write wills, leave endowments, or more generally try to live their life in such a way as to “live on” after they have passed. Whether one wants to be remembered by their family, or wants their name in the history books, the desire for one’s memory to perpetuate beyond the years given and be remembered, celebrated, or respected is common. Anonymity scares the modern man and woman.

This often motivates us to live altruistic lives. But even here the future does not give way. The hopes that people project into the future, tragically, do not last. We walk on streets named after noteworthy people, pass buildings that bear the name of someone great, but most bystanders have no idea what those names mean. Even familial relations cannot ultimately last: for even those who go through archives and trace their family’s origin find that the memory of our families fades away after two or three generations, a few centuries at best. The future is unkind to those who wish to leave a permanent mark upon this world. Now I can certainly sympathize with the common desire to be remembered, to live on past one’s time, through the memories of others or marks we leave upon this world. Alas, the mark left upon the memories of those whom we wish to “live on” through is fragile at best, a fistful of sand.

Perhaps a historical digression would be helpful to illustrate my point. During the Renaissance a scholarly discipline emerged by the name Philology (Greek for the love of words). This discipline offered a radical hope to the scholars who cultivated it. It offered them the hope of securing a future that would extend long past their time. This love of words offered a type of immortality that would, through their fame and insurmountable skill, prolong their “future” to posterity. Their writings, as traces of themselves, promised safe passage through the secure medium of the printing press and libraries and such. The Renaissance had shown the world that writing does not die and these scholars showed that even classical culture, which had lain dormant for two millennia, could be re-born and resurrected (as the meaning of the word “Renaissance” suggests). Even a man as pragmatic and scientific as Francis Bacon proclaimed the unquenchable desire for immortality as humanity’s driving force and he regarded writing as the outstanding medium for its fulfillment. This preoccupation with a certain literary “afterlife” is an interesting case-and-point, for people’s desire for a secure future.

It is as if the Renaissance inaugurated a new implicit “religion”, an alternative to the Christian cosmology. This medium of writing and the fame it promised was, indeed, their future and resurrection. It offered nothing less than what seemed to be immortality by showing that the trace of writing could be impervious to time’s acidic and coercive power. This new “religion” of philology came with its own temples (libraries), its own saints (the classic authors), its own canon (literature of Greece and Rome), and its own priests (scholars). But this dream, this hope, of gaining eternal future fame and immortality would elude them. The very agent of their hope, the printing press, turned out to be its downfall. The supply and demand of the emerging industrialized market would make all such “eternal” writings superfluous and trivial in light of the millions of other books being published. What was initially considered a noble profession turned into a way to make a buck, placing a question mark beside its “nobility.” Someone might interject and say that perhaps I am being unfair to those great authors. Don’t we still read their works after all? But the objection misses the arbitrary and contingent nature of those whom we consider great. We certainly do not consider their works great because they intended them to be.

This problematic tension between one’s desires to make an indelible mark upon the memory of this world and the elusive nature of the future is resolved in a very unexpected way within the Christian tradition. Christianity claims to have resolved this tension by rearranging how to think of time and narrative. The Western intellectual tradition receives its idea of plot from Aristotle. He described plot as something that has a beginning, middle, and an end. The New Testament radically rearranges this commonsensical arrangement by introducing the end in the middle of the story. What in the world can this mean? The Christian Scriptures, affirming the basic human desire for the future, solve the tension by bringing about the “end” of the world in the middle of history. The one to whom Christians look to secure their future had already accomplished it. The long awaited God-man has already secured the future for those who look to him.

For the Christian, in this sense, the tragedy of the future is solved. The fretting and striving to make a name for one’s self is already accomplished by Another on our behalf, which relieves the Christian from this project of self-creation, the making of a name for one’s self, and gives way to worship and gratitude. To the degree that one is convinced by what this God-man has accomplished on their behalf, to that degree one will be secure and comfortable with the tragedy of the future. In this way, I would say that Christians are called to be like the Greek god Janus, who has two faces instead of one, each looking in opposite directions. So is the Christian called to have two faces: one looking to the past, where the God-man has secured the fate of the future; the other looking to the future, where it will be delivered. I believe the Christian Scripture refers to these two faces of Janus as faith and hope: faith in what Christ has accomplished on our behalf, and hope that he will finish what he has started.

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