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It's Nelly's World

See, the Future

alec vanderboom


The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.
--
Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

It was as if I had been dropped into the middle of the Atlantic--blue-gray water rising up and down, up and down, for as far as the eye could see. But no, I was simply at the BMW MOA national rally in Tennessee, last year. It was so vast and industrial, corporate even--but well organized, as one might imagine, given the tendencies of the marque's followers--that I simply wandered about in a daze, letting the waves wash over me.

Which is exactly the way to go about one of these things. In that manner, experiences and people find you. If I had been looking for them, of course, I wouldn't have been able to locate them, and then I would have experienced disappointment. Instead, I talked to dozens and dozens of strangers, having deep talks in which we got to know one another in the space of twenty minutes, and then we moved on.

Last week, I found evidence of one of those encounters in the notebook I had taken with me to scrawl those pithy apercus that hit me from time to time, like bugs against the forehead. "Get Stumbling on Happiness!!" I'd written. Obviously someone had made a case that this was a book I had to read, and since I've started on it, I realize it's another of those gifts I'm given for which the use shows itself much later (a theme here of late).

And "later" is in fact the theme of the book. The author, a Harvard psychology professor, collates the science on our behavioral and neurological use of the concept of the future.

Apparently, the future lives in our prefrontal cortexes. When you get a frontal lobotomy--basically, an icepick through the forehead--you get calm, but you also lose the ability to picture the future. (Yes, I would be quite calm without that ability. Sometimes, I lay practically quivering in bed late at night, thinking of all the things I need to remember to do, all the people I said I would call and emails I neglected to answer; the birthdays coming up and the potluck dishes I need to make; the items for camp I need to pack and the things I need to wash; the tickets I need to buy and the deadlines I need to meet. I turn on the light and write lists. In the morning, I forget to look at the lists. So that is one more thing I need to add to a list: a reminder to look at the lists.)

In one amazing passage, Gilbert points out that "later" is a concept that was previously unknown to our primate forebears, then suddenly available to us, and recently too: within the last 3 million years. A brief blip on the timeline of our development.

I think about this. It seems that our preoccupation with "later," our inability to not think about anything but Now, has both given and taken away, from the species as well as the individuals in it.

Ironically (because it is not here yet and therefore doesn't exist), in future, there is safety. Or rather, we survived because we had the ability to plan, to put up our barricades in advance of the attack, to move to higher ground, to imagine sweet love forever. (Ha-ha, fooled you there! But in fact, we do. And it is the imagining of it that is often sweeter than the reality. He cites an experiment in which people were told they had won an expensive dinner out. The majority of people said they wished to claim their prize next week, not tonight, or tomorrow: They wanted that whole week to imagine how delicious it would be. It heightened the sense of pleasure. As well as, just maybe, yielded greater disappointment at the getting. Such are the trade-offs with our peculiar brains.) While learning to "live in the moment"--to Be Here Now--fosters calm in those superhuman enough to attain it (obviously not me), planning can make us feel safe.

So I am about to do something that runs counter to every instinct I possess: head off on a major trip without much planning. I am thinking of planning--it only takes a couple of days to have a tire shipped to somewhere in California, so when I have some idea of when and where (if I do), I'll make the call. And, of course, I am making lists. Certain to leave many things off. But this is America, and there is never a Walmart Supercenter far off. Alas.

(Come to think of it, Walmart itself is the great manifestation of our urge to think ahead. Those carts are piled high with provisions against the future, and supplies that will also ensure a return visit in the not-too-distant future, given their quality. We envision our necessary survival into the future, for when else will we consume a five-pound tub of mayonnaise?)

A voice is heard in my head, one that never used to be there. Perhaps one of the small recompenses of aging. It's all going to work out fine, Melissa. It's all going to work out.

This I have finally gleaned from that other ability we have, thanks to our susceptibility to operant conditioning: learning from the past. It has always worked out fine, in the long run. I am here, at the far side of my long run. From the past, I see the future. Looking back, I can look forward to it all working out, though I would really like to find that last list I wrote. It's here somewhere.