Random semiphilosophical musings; bear with me. No new pics as I haven’t taken any…
Human beings must be one of the few animals who can conceive of and ponder their longer-than-immediate futures – who can live and think beyond themselves, beyond their current moment, and not simply exist as they are, but ponder and deliberate and decide who and what and how they will become. For this is what truly sets us apart from other animals – the ability to forecast – no matter how accurately or inaccurately, but simply the ability to see the possibility of forecasting, and then to seemingly be driven to forecast and predict and decide again and repeatedly as our increasingly large brains push us ever onward towards a (n at times seemingly visible future).
The obvious flaw, of course, is that we are just as blind as other animals to seeing the actual future. While many of us hope or wish or expect, we have no real basis upon which to do so. In a way, we are more unfortunate than other animals, as we can see the future but not predict it – we are tricked, illuded (not a word, but hopefully you get the idea) into the belief that we can control our becomings, realize our unrealized selves; in short, that we can hope and wish and believe and (after absorbing a modicum of realism, a small hurdle over which nearly all of us easily leap) ultimately will ourselves into becoming who and what we want to be.
I’ve thought about futures mostly in the context of education. Working in Qinghai, we often discussed students’ dreams and hopes and wishes. A basic expectation of our program would be that students would continue on to higher education – and that such a path would be good for all students. Websites for schools at which I’ve applied for teaching jobs typically describe education simply as a process by which kids can attain glimmeringly brilliant futures rather than as an experience of learning and growing, a process of coming to understand oneself and one’s possibilities, an end in itself (not that a goal-oriented education for kids’ futures is bad in any way – it is a most necessary approach to education and one which I practice myself when in the classroom). But how do we place so much weight on something over which we have little to no ultimate control?
It was one thing to think about the future while working with students for whom few of the proverbial doors of opportunity were open (let alone windows or skylights or cracks in the gutter). Though chances were few, the students were unencumbered by the stultifying jadedness that seems to be a sort of fifth apocalyptic horseman of modernity and globalization. They were open to all sorts of possibilities, and as such, were willing to strive and try as hard as possible for any of them. Dreams were not bound by the strictures of reality, but neither were they bound by an overexposure and overstimulation-weakened imagination.
Now, working with students at whose feet the proverbial grand portals of the world lie open (some if not all), the future has changed. It is a matter of paperwork and logistics, of afternoon extracurricular activities and grades and healthy daily bustle, of fully controlled creativity harnessed towards a set of carefully structured ends, of rules and regulations and limits and boundaries and hoops, endless hoops through which, lionlike, they must sleekly, soundlessly jump (and stick the landing – 10/10).
This is not for want of resources or possibilities. Is it because these students need to be pushed in different directions, led towards and shown a whole new range of ideas and ways of living? Is this why I feel compelled to take a group of students to Qinghai, a rough trip which will hopefully (again, trying to determine the future; I can’t help myself) open up discussions about our ideas and thoughts and, through protracted interactions, ultimately lead to new ways of thinking and feeling and seeing ourselves and others and all of our futures, collectively, individually? For is it not for our futures that we are motivated to do anything? Buddhistic discussion of the moment (in which I often partake) is fun, and sometimes you do have genuine moments where you are completely in a time and place and setting and are so immersed that you as a person nearly disappear into the background, replaced only by experience – but how often? – and how much more are we motivated and driven so unendingly relentlessly forward by our own ideas of not what is but what will?
And how does this affect how we live, how we go about our daily lives and how we engage with each other; how we educate ourselves and our children, how we raise families, how we get up and go to sleep daily and never find ourselves anywhere but rather in the process of going somewhere or doing something, always unfinished or incomplete, inevitable outcomes forthcoming.
I don’t have any answers to the problem of living in the present vs. future; both have distinct advantages and should probably be balanced against each other as modes of thinking about the world. It seems to me that with advances in communicative and transportation technology that the future is inching ever closer to the present (and even the past), that the idea of being (vs. becoming) is acceleratingly approaching its extinction. I’m not quite sure where this will leave us, though it seems rather ominous and I should probably disapprove. But all I can do at this point is hope (again unwittingly wandering into the future) that we can remain animals who project forwards and nevertheless manage to remain ourselves.
For this is the most we can hope for, is it not? – that we still have some sliver of power of self-determination and self-knowledge. For why do we continue moving forward, endlessly towards a future we cannot even begin to know (let alone determine), if we – unlike the animals around us – have lost ourselves in the present?