Respect the Future

The only constant is change. It’s the most basic fact of all existence- nothing lasts, nothing stays the same. We feel it with every breath, from the time we learn the concept of mortality to our eventual inevitable passing. We ride a wave of uncertainty from the inception of our lives to the end and one would think that would make us used to it, but we all crave certainty. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we hunger for solidity, for reassurance, for safety, for endurance and perpetuity. That is a big problem. In fact, it might even be THE problem.

Almost every religion and every worldview grapples with the idea of uncertainty. In the face of sickness, death, loss, grief, and suffering, we crave not just happiness but certainty, and out of this fear of change, thousands of dogmas, scriptures, and beliefs have risen, each promising freedom from change and everlasting happiness. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism teaches us the truth of dukkha, that life is suffering because all life is temporary, conditional, and dependent on other things. We suffer because everything that comes together falls apart. The chair I am sitting on, the laptop I am typing this with, the cells and the organs and the systems that sum up to me have come together, and so they must fall apart. Long before scientists figured it out, Buddha knew that entropy increases, things fall apart, and despite our best efforts, we are all going away someday. But more than just tangible things, everything is going. In our work, in our relationships, in our love, in our friendships, in our health, in our future, we are awash in a rough, choppy sea of uncertainty, desperately looking for a boat or a life jacket or even just a piece of driftwood to cling onto- and that… that is scary.

As for me? Jeez, change is scary. I am a man of habit, and I really don’t handle change so well. When I was a kid, I had these rituals where I had to brush my teeth a certain way and put my stuffed animals away in a certain order and say goodnight to everyone in the family before I was willing to go to bed, and if there was any deviation, I’d have to start all over again. Even now, sometimes traveling makes me anxious, I like to sleep and shower and poop in the same place, and I hate it when people change plans. This semester in particular, I struggled with uncertainty in my relationships, in my interests, in my future, in myself, and a lot of times I felt like things were out of my control. Change scares me, and I don’t do uncertainty so well. For me, what it feels like is the paralyzing fear of the unknown coupled with a desire for things to go back to the way they were, a debilitating fear that makes it difficult to make decisions and take risks. In a way, I feel a little like Wile E. Coyote- a few seconds ago, I was speeding on the road chasing the Road Runner, and a few seconds later I realize I’m running in the air, trying to figure out where the sky ends and the ground starts.

But how do we properly deal with the uncertainty that is ever present in our lives? To be honest, I have no idea.

But I did read this lovely op-ed a few years ago in the New York Times by David Brook entitled Respect the Future. In it, Brook writes about Charles Snelling and his wife Adrienne, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Four months before the op-ed was written, Snelling wrote to Brooks about how taking care of his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s enriched his life, and made him a fuller human being. A little before the op-ed, Snelling seems to have changed his mind, and took his wife’s life and then his own. Brooks talks a little about his views on Charles’s actions, and suggests that because it is so hard to foresee the future, we ought not make decisions foreclosing future thinking, but rather respect the future.

I like that a lot- “respect the future.” We are abysmally bad at knowing how we will feel in a few hours or a few days, let alone far into the future. We have a tough time deciding what to eat for dinner after we eat lunch, and we buy the wrong amount of groceries based on how hungry we are when we go shopping. We are bad at making small decisions about the future, let alone big important ones. The truth is, we are all terrible at knowing how we will feel in the future. Our imagination adds and removes details that we may not notice. We exaggerate how much the future will be like the present. We fail to realize that things often feel different when they actually happen, and our imagination of the future is heavily tinted by our feelings in the present, and that bad things don’t often feel as bad as they do when we imagine them. And if we are terrible at telling the future, these weaknesses only get worse in times of stress and suffering.

In the face of this inability, I think it seems a little foolish to write off the future based on how we feel today, to imagine that we have mastery over how we will feel and decide in the future. Instead, I think it’s better to respect the future, and humbly wait for future events to unfold. After all, like the New York Lottery tells us:
Hey, You Never Know.

I suppose it would be satisfying to be able to provide some sort of concrete resolution, some way of clearing the fog and the fuzziness that comes with life. But I think an important part of growing up is understanding that embracing uncertainty is more than just claiming that “now we don’t know, but we’ll know in the future,” but rather accepting the fuzzy boundaries of asking questions and living life. There is a sense of liberation in embracing uncertainty- that life remains exciting and joyful, that uncertainty is a part of living a life of inquiry, that it’s okay to not know. This life is a mystery to us all, and to accept false certainty is to hide away and keep your head in the sand, forgetting what makes life so full of beauty and horror.

So even if you do not have the confidence to keep on striding along into the future, I hope that you at least have enough respect and faith for the future to keep stumbling on. I’d like to end with one of my favorite quotations:

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day that says “I will try again later.
— Mary Anne Radmacher