Is there a future? If so, when does it start?

My sister died at 50-- how can I plan for anything if life is so capricious?

Published October 13, 2005 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Lately some of your advice has been to people losing family through cancer. I have recently lost my sister -- she was only 50 and had fought cancer for over two years. I was her helpmate during that time.

My question is: With an increased awareness of mortality, how do you live a full life if you are afraid that by trying to be happy in the time you have left (I am 57) you might tempt fate? I am always amazed by people who take a normal life span for granted -- for example, when they talk about retirement or old age. I can't even renew my driver's license for more than one year for fear it would be hubris to renew it for any longer.

When does the future begin? When do you stop preparing for it and actually start living it? When can you let your guard down a bit without worrying whether you are being too selfish? When can I stop feeling guilty for wanting to fill my time with things that please me? Why do I have to make the excuse that I want to do things I want because I have seen that there is an end and I want to fit some of them in?

I've never been one of those people who decide what they want in life and go out and do their best to get it. I have just drifted along and taken what was dished out. Amor fati, so to speak.

I can't get it out of my head that it is dangerous to actively want a certain sort of life for oneself and to try to reach it somehow.

I am single and have decided that I would like to travel more in the future -- if I have one. See what I mean?

Uncertain How to Begin

Dear How to Begin,

The question "Do I have a future?" is not answerable now. It will only be answerable later, when it is meaningless. But we can show that the future seems to have periodically come into being in the past. We can write on a calendar, On this date, I ask, Will there be a tomorrow? If tomorrow arrives, then we check this question in the affirmative: Yes, tomorrow arrived. Interesting. Not conclusive proof that you have a future, but at least a concrete observation from which you might draw some tentative conclusions. If, on the next day, we were to again inquire would tomorrow arrive, and again, the next day, upon its arrival, we put an X in the affirmative column, and repeated that, after a year or two we would have many precedents in which the future actually did arrive. You could then be said, retrospectively at least, to have a future.

But that, of course, would be the kind of answer that arrives too late. Still, your presence today is ample evidence of numerous futures having already arrived and departed. Even though you continually doubt the arrival of the next day or month or year, so far each has arrived, without a single omission. Not a single month or day has failed to appear -- has it? (Have you noticed any suspicious gaps in your chronology?) Now, we don't know if there may have been substitutions; we do not know that this day is not actually a substitute for a day that failed to show up, or was deemed unsuitable by the supervisor, or that it might be the wrong day, inserted erroneously by the night crew. All we know is that serviceable days and months, in their allotted dimensions, seem to have arrived without fail.

They may be said to arrive, however, only because we are here to bear witness to them -- the only kind of tomorrow that counts is the one you are around for. The other tomorrow, the one without us in it, is a kind of cruel joke. (Though not for me. I plan on people reading what I have written after I am dead -- to that end, great and powerful servers are distributed around the planet, preserving these keystrokes.)

Another irresistible question you pose is this: When does the future begin?

The future begins right after the present ends. But when does the present end? The present seems to go on! I keep waiting for it to end. But it continues to unroll: Is this the future ... now! ... or just more of the present? If this is indeed the present we are in right now, then maybe the present is the car and the future is the road: We're in the car all the time, but we're going somewhere. Eventually we would park and get out. But if the present is a car, its doors must be locked. We cannot get out.

There is one container in which we travel that we cannot exit, and that is the body. So maybe the present is the body. If that's the case, then the future begins only when we leave our bodies.

Can that be right? Can it be that we don't have to worry about the future at all until we are dead? That doesn't sound right. What about college applications? Well, to be precise, we can envision the future at any moment, and we can make plans for the future, but everything we do, we do in the present.

So we buy tickets.

We buy tickets to the future. We buy plane tickets that will manifest themselves in flight. The ticket is a foothold on the mountainous future looming before us. Look at that ticket in your hand! Look at the date! Amazing!

Having settled the facts of the matter, we come to the problem of perception. You say, "I can't get it out of my head that it is dangerous to actively want a certain sort of life for oneself and to try to reach it somehow." If I might paraphrase: You are concerned that making plans might precipitate their unraveling; you fear you might "tempt fate," stir into action a sinister force by acting to get what you want, or indulging your ambitions and desires.

On the one hand, this seems like a superstitious belief. On the other hand, perhaps there are real dangers to pursuing what you want. Why not try to narrow down what kind of danger you face when you actively pursue a certain life for yourself? Is the danger that you may fail, or be refused? Those are real dangers, but they can be mitigated and contained. If you never ask for anything, of course, you can never be refused. If you never try then you can never fail. It's understandable that, in order to avoid certain risks, you might feel safer drifting along than actively striving. But if you can identify some pursuits with relatively low chance of failure, you may find you can move forward with a tolerable level of risk.

One might also ask, What is it about failure that is so painful? Have you experienced terrible failures in the past? Is the death of your sister itself a kind of catastrophic failure that has called into question the whole enterprise of living?

Perhaps you have been struck with a one-two punch: grief over your sister's death, and utter shock at life's capricious brevity.

I suggest you find a manageable objective. Pick a place you want to see that's not too incredibly far from home. Buy the tickets. Book the lodgings. Go about your life as always until it's time to go to the airport.

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