The new year, the future, and where to find it

This short essay was broadcast by BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme today.

You’ll know the joke about the lost traveler who asks a local for directions. The local replies: Well, I wouldn’t start from here.

The joke works because it reflects a profound human trait. We nurture hopes and dreams, set goals and make resolutions, fixed on where we want to be. It’s a tendency that becomes manic at the turn of the year. If only we didn’t have to be here, now. We humans will go a long way to deny or avoid it.

It’s not a modern issue. The ancient Greek philosophers identified it as a fundamental problem because it blocks human transformation. Take the Stoics. There’s a clue in the name, which they got not because they celebrated the supposed virtues of the stiff-upper lip but because they taught in the stoa – the shady colonnades of the Athenian marketplace.
The stoa are found in the midst of life. Like the high street or workplace this is where people routinely, mundanely find themselves to be. And this place – right here, right now – is replete with opportunities to practice the Stoic philosophy of change. It’s not what happens to you that matters, but how you respond to what happens. Attend to that and the future will be different, they promised.

Take Epictetus, the Roman Stoic whose books survive because early Christians thought they provided an essential primer to anyone who sought the future promised by Jesus Christ. Epictetus asks us to consider what happens when, say, we’re in the queue at the cabbage stall. You’ve joined that queue because the cabbages are on sale at half price. But just as you get to the front, the half price cabbages run out. What happens next?

It’s a potentially life-changing moment, Epictetus explains. How do you react? Are you angry? Are you downhearted? Are you indifferent? It doesn’t really matter. The point is that if you notice how you feel, you’ve taken the first step into a different future because you haven’t habitually reacted. And it comes about because you’ve been able to tolerate the moment.

You could say that the Stoics argued the future is not found tomorrow. It’s found today. Don’t keep asking to be somewhere else. That’s the existential equivalent of the local whose advice is not to start from here.

It sounds obvious. But try it. It’s remarkably hard to do. And I think even more so in the modern world which is orientated towards the future to an extent our forebears couldn’t have possibly imagined. Much of our economic life serves a longed-for tomorrow – when we’ve paid off the mortgage, reduced the national debt, can cash-in on a pension. Much of our personal life is lived similarly. I read that many people spend the new year thumbing catalogues showing sunny beaches and turquoise skies – before booking a summer holiday. Imaginatively too, the world has gone future crazy. Gizmos are sold not simply because of what they can do, but because they offer a foretaste of the better technological tomorrow guaranteed by human progress. We tire of them so quickly and have to purchase the upgrade because they leave us bereft, stranded with the reality of today.

It’s a serious spiritual issue. It sends people to hell, according to Dante. In his Divine Comedy, he realises that the condemned are trapped and tortured by their obsession with their past, and by their fears for the future. The present eludes them and so nothing can change.

Sigmund Freud re-described the state of affairs in what he called the repetition compulsion. Have a look. It’s shocking to realise how much of your energy actually results in things staying precisely the same. We repeat ourselves, time and time again.

In a paradoxical way, the ancient philosophers concluded that you need to forget the future to have a future. Know thyself now, was Socrates’ way of putting it. Many first Christians agreed. St Luke wrote that the kingdom of God is not coming: it’s already within you.

You have to trust the present to go with that. And I suppose that’s another problem for we moderns – particularly amidst the hype and hopes of a new year.

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