Hope for the future? Big question. If the future looks bleak, do I change or do I just “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”? If change is possible, what I should do with my limited waking hours (Paul Hawken’s list is a good starting point). Herein I suggest that “hope for the future” is just brain pocket fuzz. Time to unpack this trope. Read on.

What comes to mind when you hear the word future? Here’s a mind-map with a common set of responses. What would you put on your own mind-map of ideas about the future?

  • Is the future for you like a blank slate, a mystery?
  • Have you filled it, making plans?
  • Have you wised up to that no matter how much you plan, the future has a mind of its own. “Man (sic) proposes, God disposes.” Woody Allen said: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
  • Have you stopped thinking about the future; why bother, everything falls through?
  • Are you a prepper, stockpiling to control for as many futures as you can imagine?
  •  Have your prior plans so fallen flat that you are just bumping along with the life you have? Or…?

Here’s a blank for you. What goes on it? 

Add a bubble for everything you think of as the future.

What is still missing from this picture? What might you add or subtract? What aren’t you seeing?

The secret is in those 3 little bubbles from the person’s head to the octopus of projections in that big fluffy cloud of thoughts.

The future is a figment of our imagination.

Anything you put on that map is a projection. Not real.

Now you might argue with me about this. If the doctor says you have 3 months to live, wouldn’t that be a certainty about the future, not just imagination. Dead is dead. Climate scientist have given us 12 years before we hit the point of no return. It might be 10 by now. Or 15. But given how paltry our response is to the data, we won’t quibble. Stable life on earth has been given a death sentence unless it changes it’s lifestyle, and even then, it might be too far gone. Isn’t that an immutable future, not just one option among many in our fertile brains?

We are forever interacting with the big thought bubble about the future to assure a preferred outcome.

“Hope for the future” may refer to an assessment of whether a set of actions we take today can change the fearful projections of our minds. If you put “You’ll never get married” in one of those futures, you might do everything possible to meet a mate, not realizing that “you’ll never get married” was just a thought! Or put “45% chance of being alive in 5 years” in a bubble and you’ll do whatever it takes to be in the lucky 45%.

45% chance of survival…

In fact, that’s what the oncologist told me in 2004 after surgery on a citrus sized tumor in my colon was removed.

“It’s gone into your lymph system. It’s Stage 3. You have a 45% chance of survival. You need to start chemo right away.”

I was sitting on the edge of an exam table, he was standing.

“Who says (as in who says I’ve got a 45% shot)”?

“Research shows…”

“Show me the research…”

He fetched a big tome, opened to a 2-page spread with the relevant study summarized.

“Would you copy this for me?”

He seemed thrown off by my request but made a copy and brought it back. I held it up, pointing between the paper and myself.

“This is a piece of paper. This is Vicki. Piece of paper. Vicki. I’ll go home and think about it.”

I wasn’t being difficult. I was being woke before I knew that word. I knew I had a choice and I knew that choosing wasn’t about outcome later but about the stunning realness of my life in that moment. I was attracted to the nakedness of no treatment but for a few decent reasons I chose to give at least one round of the 6 months chemo treatment a go.

I got through Round 1, barely, with side effects the docs had never seen. Round 2 was worse. Just before I quit it entirely, I was so sick, so affected by all that was erupting from both ends of my digestive tract, so worn down that my world was reduced to lying on the floor outside the bathroom, consumed by what was consuming me. That’s when a most surprising insight struck me. I realized I had lost something that has been with me my whole life. Something necessary but never visible.

I lost a sense of the future.

It was neither dreadful nor Nirvana. It was simply that everything I had ever done or thought or felt had existed inside this sense of the future, as necessary as sight. I needed this sense to create. To make meaning. To know where to plant my foot next. To make a considered choice. The future is never real, but the sense of the future, the sense that there is something we are living into, is essential to the sense of being human. If the soul is where the imprints of lifetimes exists, the seat of our longing to rest in God, a moral compass, how can we be soul-full without the necessary fiction of a future into which we offer ourselves?

Honor, integrity, kindness, care, curiosity… all rely on this sense of the future. The irony and glory of the human mind in action.
Back to, “Is there hope for the future?” Turns out, that’s the wrong question.

The future is not an object of observation but the ability to observe.

We don’t hope for it. We create into it. We paint it on the canvas of our minds, and react to our paintings. We write scripts that are projected onto the movie screens of our minds. The future is not a secret God knows and the rest of us tremble over.  It is more like a vast improvisation, what James Carse calls Infinite games.
The question is, as script writers, what stories do we want to play out in “the future” in our minds?
May I suggest a way forward?
  • Accept that we don’t know, can never know, the totality of what’s going on. Past experiences affect our projections. Sentimental preferences for outcomes affect our projections. A scientific curiosity un-modified by human decency can make unsavory futures at least savory experiments. Climate scientists know a great deal about the consequences already baked into the atmosphere, and we would be wise to do everything possible to mitigate, ameliorate, prepare, adapt, stop, repent. But they do not know the literally billions of stories also underway – human, natural systems, cosmological events – that might make things much better, much worse or much weirder.
  • Realize that no one in history knew the outcome of his/her actions for certain – yet they acted. Christ on the cross probably didn’t know about resurrection. He wasn’t like “whatever” because he knew in three days he’d get issued an ethereal body and start a world religion. For every witch burned and sinner hanged there were some that got away – but none at that time had any idea what would happen next. Saints may become sinners. Sinners may become saints.
  • We are not the first humans to fear for our children as they sail onto uncharted seas, grieving the end of the world as we know it. We are always on the precipice of the unknown, even as everything we cherish is under threat.
  • In fact, all human stories are made of these elements: love, risk, assumptions and expectations soon to be dashed, the stranger, the twists of fate, the consequential battles that tip the balance.
  • We are free to live whatever stories we believe are worth living, but are not free to control outcomes. 
  • Given that we don’t know what will happen but we are certain to live in the future we are creating – or our progeny will – why not tithe at least 10% of your time and imagination to whatever you think will make a world we want to live into. 

When asked if she had hope for the future, Donella Meadows, one of my mentors and one of the brilliant systems thinkers who produced the Limits to Growth report in 1974, said this:

“When I look at governments, bureaucracies and institutions, I have no hope. When I look at what people and people-in-groups are doing, I am full of hope.”

And so… is there hope for the future?

We need to live as if there will be a future and we and those we love will be alive in it.

We need this for our own sanity, even if it is a fiction. We need this to take action based on our most astonishingly amazing imagination, because anything less is at least too boring and might just shirk the very step on which it all hangs in balance. No one knows if they are the plot twist. The Deus ex Machina.

Let us step onto our crosses with no knowledge of resurrection.

Let us walk into those fires with no knowledge that any difference will come from our sacrifice. Let us make merry because comedy stumbles into solutions that tragedies ignore. Let us do what we do best – write, swim, play tennis, sing, throw parties, mate, run businesses, teach, fight – for the benefit of all. Let us dedicate our actions not to assuring the best outcome but to assuring that whatever the outcome, we gave it our best. And even if we are assured, as this film posits, that we know when the end of the world will come, we keep becoming ourselves to the very end.