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There is No Future, and That’s Good

Post image for There is No Future, and That’s Good

Next month I’m going on a trip to the US, but I won’t know the destination until I’m in the cab on the way to the airport.

A friend and I hatched this “surprise trip” idea a few years ago. One person chooses the destination and books flights and hotel, staying within a certain budget and other agreed parameters. The other person packs for any destination in the United States, and doesn’t find out where until shortly before going through airport security.

Most people probably wouldn’t want to travel like this, but it works for us. We both like surprises, and we both know how to have fun almost anywhere. We did it once already in 2018. I was the planner and my friend was the surprisee, and we had a great time touring Boston. This time I’m the surprisee, and anticipating this trip gives me a feeling I haven’t quite felt before.

It’s interesting because I’m looking forward to the trip, but I have no idea what I’m looking forward to. Thinking about it brings no images to mind, just an exciting void. Mostly I end up thinking about Boston, one of the few places I know we’re not going.

When my mind fails to find an image, a seed from which to envision this upcoming trip, it feels something like I’m standing on a cliff, looking out into impenetrable darkness. Nothing can be seen that way, and right now there is nothing that way, but it’s still the way I’m headed. The landscape will form just as I move forward into the nothing.

This strange mental experience, of looking forward into a mysterious void, is probably a more realistic view of the future than the one we normally entertain. “Looking forward” isn’t actually possible, because “forward” isn’t there yet. If you think about next week or next month, your mind will populate with images and impressions about what might happen: people you might see, things you might do, pleasures and displeasures you might run into. But all of those ideas about the future are actually made of memories — mental facsimiles of past experience. You’re not looking forward, you’re assembling remembered images into a haphazard diorama, which is supposed to be the future you’re headed to. But you’re not headed there; you’re headed into the void.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The void is always coalescing into the present, which is where the entirety of life happens. The void can deliver experiences you never thought to think about — in fact it’s not possible to think about them, because thinking about them would require you to already have memories of them.

Me staring into the void, c. 1984

It’s worth pondering our true situation with respect to time: the past and future are inaccessible and hypothetical. They don’t exist in our experience, and they don’t exist by definition. They are figments created momentarily, in the present, by thinking. We’re confined entirely to the knowable present, even though we may spend much of that present compulsively hallucinating times and places outside the present. But they’re not really there.

It seems like the past is unlike the future in that it has already happened, but the past is every bit as hypothetical. There’s evidence of past events, but evidence only helps you to imagine the past and say things about what you imagine — it doesn’t let you experience the past. We’re frequently fooled on this point by our imaginations. A photograph provides a still image of a past instant, but the context and meaning of it are always imagined; a sepia picture of a man in a cowboy hat and chaps is only that, but your mind will invent a story about it, and the past at large, from captions, anecdotes, memories of movies, history lectures, and childhood cartoons, none of which give you access to the past as it really happened.

Even looking at a photograph of a moment you were present for doesn’t allow you to experience any part of that moment. At best you can experience a present-moment rush of thoughts and emotions that seem to somehow be from the past. But those feelings are generated here and now and experienced as they occur.

Had to be there

The future is just as inaccessible, but even less imaginable. We have no view whatsoever of the future. Anticipating this surprise trip is one of the few experiences I’ve had that makes this reality obvious. When I look forward to the trip, I can feel the how unformed the future actually is, because there are no memories or preconceptions I can map onto it. I can’t fool myself with an imagined diorama because I have no materials with which to build one.

My friend knows where we’re going, so she can “look forward” to the trip in the conventional sense, by exploring remembered images and thoughts of Atlanta or Santa Fe or Memphis or wherever we’re going. She might imagine we’re headed to that collection of images, but we’re not. We’re headed towards experiences we don’t yet have memories of.

What all this means is that the future is far more mysterious than we usually believe, because we inadvertently expect it to be made of things we’ve already seen. By the time the “future” becomes our present-moment experience, we’ve forgotten those ad-hoc memory-derived expectations because they’re no longer relevant, and they were just passing thoughts anyway.

Detailed image of the future

The future being a mysterious and hopelessly unpredictable void might sound scary, because we’re a security-preoccupied creature that likes to inventory potential threats. But mostly I think it’s good news. Life will take on forms we didn’t realize it could take.

As just one example, think about people you love who you didn’t always know. Before you met them, no matter how much you thought about the future, you could not have imagined Joan’s infectious laugh, Victor’s reassuring voice, or the way it feels when Robbie enters the room. The materials were never there to fabricate them. Everybody and everything that makes life great emerged right out of the void, in spite of all expectations, whole and unimaginable.


Photos by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen, Isabel Cain (?), and Museums Victoria

Tara February 16, 2024 at 12:18 pm

Trungpa Rinpoche said, the bad news is we are falling through space without a parachute. The good news is there is no ground. I’ve always liked that.

Mostly I find life repetitious and a bit boring, because I have to do the same things over and over again. But of course no experience is identical to the one that preceded it. Our life is just a continuous series of experiences. As a yogin I am looking forward to the experience of death, with a bit of trepidation and great curiosity.

David Cain February 16, 2024 at 3:41 pm

I always loved the parachute analogy. My theory is that repetition only occurs in the mind. The details are always different, and the more attentive I am to the unfolding details of everything, the more impossible boredom feels. The next sensation is always a surprise. Even if it’s something you’ve done a thousand times, like rinse a glass, for example, the details always unfold differently — the water runs of a different way, the sound is different. Only the thought “I’d rather be someone else” really repeats.

Dawn S. February 16, 2024 at 12:19 pm

“So true!” are the words that kept running through my head as I read about your mystery/surprise trip. As a person who usually tries to plan and prepare for “the future,” however I also think it’s brave. But, as you say, the future is not knowable until it becomes the present so there is no way you can truly plan for everything that can happen. Often, we learn more about ourselves and our travel partners when faced with the unexpected. Only then, is our resourcefulness put to the test. And often, the spontaneous adventures are the most memorable!!

Thank you David. Your messages always make me think.and wonder!!

David Cain February 16, 2024 at 3:43 pm

I’ve written a few times about the way travel seems to stretch out the days and make them more memorable. Basically, when your experiences are all or mostly unexpected, you have to attend to much more of what’s happening — you can’t rely on remembered patterns as you can when you’re home. So you experience much more and remember much more.

brettys February 16, 2024 at 12:27 pm

My daughter’s best friend drowned on vacation in November. Two days before that happened, I had read an article about Camus and his way of looking at the absurdity of life. I feel it helped me talk to my daughter about K’s death. We’re here for a short time, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. Back up a bit and look at life as not really making a lot of sense. We are riding a wave and need to try to make the best of it. Laughter helps.
When I was young, many teachers told us every generation would have it better than previous generations. I think that is harmful and may make people feel cheated if their life isn’t going as well as planned.
I really enjoy your blogs and how your mind works, David. Thanks

David Cain February 16, 2024 at 3:46 pm

Agree with that. Ultimately there is little that is predictable about life, but our incessant habit of trying to map out how it’s going can make it seem like it is unfolding in a predictable arc. But I think that’s the cart leading the horse. The fixation on predicting the future makes it seem predictable, but some moments are so surprising that it shakes you out of that illusion, at least temporarily.

Brian Storey February 16, 2024 at 1:49 pm

Thanks David
As always you’ve crafted an insightful, engaging piece.

Allyson Keller February 16, 2024 at 2:00 pm

I Love this idea! Thank you for always sharing a new perspective on such a fun variety of topics! (And I hope to run into you here in the SoCal desert. Lots of Canadians love it here)

Paulina February 16, 2024 at 2:44 pm

Hello my David, I love love love surprises and your trip plans is magnificence, you really know how to enjoy life to the fullest. It is soo fun when one can can be in that space where you don’t know where is next thing….I used to live this way in my younger years. When I started having children I stopped being this way. My children and my marriage together brought so many unkown emotions that my joie of vivre was not the same until I got divorce. IT feels so good to bring back the excitement – it is soo fun and my children are loving it. It is incredible to see that many can’t handle the surprise thing – even the tiny ones, as they may get too anxious. Thanks for sharing yourself.

Mona February 16, 2024 at 3:05 pm

Ohhhhh you don’t know how much I needed this now. I’m immigrating and getting married at the same time soon and it’s so much stressful for me. I can’t help but think constantly about future and what could happen and how my life would be. Thank you so much for this post. It came at the best time

David Cain February 16, 2024 at 3:55 pm

I know this feeling of compulsively thinking about future scenarios over and over, as though if we do it enough we’ll be able to shine a flashlight into the void and see what’s there. But there is no way to do that. Just remember that the void will contain a lot of unimaginable amazing things too no matter what happens.

Steve February 16, 2024 at 7:53 pm

I got married and then we emigrated from UK to Australia 7 days later. That was 25 years ago. There is no way I could have predicted where I am now when I left the UK. I believe that choosing to emigrate self selects people that will generally do well. You are giving something up that is familiar to learn the way a new country operates, you will have to problem solve, find new networks and rebuild your life. That means you are brave, intelligent enough to work through the emigration process and optimistic. Piece by piece you will re-establish yourself and every new person you meet, job you start, place you live in, favourite new restaurant, hobby you take up will take you to who knows where. The first year will be the hardest but try and re-frame your stress as excitement for what could be. Good luck and try and enjoy the ride.

Rocky February 16, 2024 at 7:01 pm

I have been working lately on not getting ahead of myself, which is akin attempting to gaze into the future.
This approach pays big dividends.
“Chop Wood… Carry Water”

Barry February 16, 2024 at 8:13 pm

Many years ago, one Australian airline sold what they called “mystery weekends”. Like your surprise trips everything was catered for – flights booked, hotels booked and transfers arranged. You had no idea where you were going, just a rough idea of what time your flight was due to leave. The one concession that they did allow was that if you contacted them the day before departure they would tell you vaguely what the weather was going to be like for the weekend. So, we got, “no need to pack any winter gear” and “fine but chilly” and once “if you like the beach pack your swimwear.” It did save carting around unnecessary baggage.

And I guess that is what your piece is about.

David Cain February 17, 2024 at 2:47 pm

Ah I would totally go for that!

Anker February 16, 2024 at 8:16 pm

If you end up in Tucson, let me know and I’ll see what I can do to enhance your trip.

David Cain February 17, 2024 at 2:47 pm

Will do!

Carol February 17, 2024 at 12:18 am

A friend of mine summed it up like this:
Knowledge is about the past.
Faith is about the future.
Ice cream and chocolate are about the here and now.

Your thoughts are wonderfully insightful, and will stay with me. Thank you! And have a wonderful journey!

Divyesh Shah February 17, 2024 at 1:11 am

Just magnificent. Exactly what I needed reminding of today as I concoct million imaginary outcomes per minute in my head and all generally a habit of discontent and catastrophe outcome thinking. On reflection, everything I have conjured up in my head re future and based on expectations has not happened by any means according to my negative imagination. Thank you David and you always remind me why I love your posts. ❤️

David Cain February 17, 2024 at 2:50 pm

For a while I was experimenting with writing down some of those imagined catastrophes and putting them in a box, then periodically looking at them. None of them ever happened. It was kind of hilarious.

Divyesh Shah February 17, 2024 at 1:12 am

And yes, do plan a trip to Sydney Australia but then do warm your friend that it might just be a long flight…

Cara February 17, 2024 at 4:38 am

I was attending a friend’s wedding reception in Cali, Colombia a few years ago. The organizers had put together a photo album of the bride and/or groom with the various friends and family members who were in attendance (we’d all submitted photos in advance), and we were each to write a caption below the photo we were in. Below the photo of David and, I arm and arm in our skydiving suits, I wrote, “We’ll always have all the things we haven’t even done yet.”

David Cain February 17, 2024 at 2:51 pm

I love that way of thinking. I like to think about the friends I haven’t met yet, because it gives me the exciting void feeling.

Sarah February 17, 2024 at 7:44 am

Dying to know where you actually went for your surprise!

Ron Geraci February 17, 2024 at 8:42 am

As usual, this essay is so very insightful and thoughtful. For me, the nagging awareness that our actions and decisions today may still be impacting us and other people in some imagined future state is both a great gift and curse for our species (among other cognitive powers humans have developed). It may appear to be invaluable when it motivates us to do something hard today to try to positively influence some imagined future state — like the ant working hard while the grasshopper fiddles — but the randomness of reality can also make it easy for us to change that perception and turn it into a regret. (For example, reality could furnish an autumn disaster that kills the exhausted ant and merry grasshopper, as well as their entire community.)

I think we must continually try to navigate this confounding, unreal thoughtscape to some degree, nearly every day, just to live our lives with as some feeling of purpose and intention. But it can become overwhelming so easily if we give the unpredictability of reality too little or too much weight.

Again, thanks for the well-written, thought-provoking essay.

Cynthia February 17, 2024 at 1:11 pm

Your writing just keeps getting better and better.

Heather February 17, 2024 at 5:56 pm

As per usual, David, this was exactly what I needed at this exact moment. Does this mean I’ve accomplished, at long last, being in the moment?

Sara February 18, 2024 at 9:55 pm

David, the idea of staring into the void of the future hit a real note with me. I think I saw a baby doing just this yesterday. I’ve never seen a look like that on a babies face before. It was being pushed in its stroller down the road, and its wee round fat face was pushed sideways against the edge of the stroller, and its huge round eyes were staring into the far, far distance, while its whole face had somehow taken on the look of a person who has seen the edge of the universe, and is not too happy about it. I stopped walking and just stared as it passed. I kinda wanted to run after the parents and suggest they check in on it! Anyhow, at the time I thought “that kid has seen eternity”, but now I think maybe it realised its whole life was a void waiting to be filled :-)

HD February 20, 2024 at 8:48 am

This is such a fun idea and an excellent way to savor anticipation without building up expectations. I’m nomadic and always ‘trip’ planning (really, life planning), but in the future, I’d like to try taking a trip I plan without looking at any pictures of my destination. Especially with the internet, so much of our future is planned through images and we arrive places- restaurants, bars, parks, cities already knowing what they look like. What a treat it would be to arrive to an entire country blind and open to anything. I’ve already picked the spot…Tunisia, because I don’t think I’ve already seen images and can’t picture it at all. Ready to jump into the void!

Claudia February 20, 2024 at 1:48 pm

I am glad I found your blog. So full of interesting articles for self-reflection and self-growth!

Pipsterate February 24, 2024 at 12:32 pm

When I think of the future, it tends to be about the most certain parts. More wrinkles and joint pain. More deaths among my family. Less time to accomplish my dreams.

This post is a useful reminder that a few certainties don’t mean my whole future is foreseeable. You might check the first and last page of a book, and get a very general idea of what happens, but that’s not the same as actually reading it.

Katherine March 13, 2024 at 3:22 pm

As always, I love this. The idea of the future containing mysteries that could be positive vs. scary reminds me of Rob Brezsny’s suggestion to embrace “pronoia” vs. paranoia, e.g. “how the whole world is conspiring to shower you with blessings.” A fun reframe

Freshmusicd March 29, 2024 at 10:02 pm

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