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Tomorrow is today’s dream?

Well a quote from Khalil Ghibran says it is!  But will it be?

We try to be happy by making choices that we think will bring us happiness, but that “us” is the future us.  We have to guess what our future self will want, filling in the future, and we fill in the future with…today.  And perhaps tomorrow is something we can’t dream up, but something very different. 

Imagine you are going to take a trivia quiz.  Afterwards which would you prefer, the answers or a chocolate bar?  If you’re like most you pick the chocolate bar.  But if you ask the same question after the quiz you want the answers!  When asked before you took the quiz, you imagined your future self would have a lot of desire for chocolate. Trivia questions?  They’re a dime a dozen!  You just don’t get that “I need to know!!!” sense that your future self will actually have.  So if you tethered yourself to the chocolate bar you’d be an unhappy camper.

(This belief that the future will be like now speaks to all those resolutions you’ve made, in all sincerity.  Staring at a paper deadline you declare that you will start your next paper much earlier.   But then future self comes along and rather than feeling the need to work on the paper you want to sleep, or to spend time with friends, or to do other work.  Hungover you resolve not to drink so much in the future, because surely your future self will carry with the feeling of NOW.  But then there you are and there are these other pulls your future self experiences and the hangover returns.  When you make the resolution you don’t understand your future self.  If you can grok that future self maybe you can figure out ways to make the resolution last!)

Ok.  Do you want a potato chip?  Imagine that chip next to a sardine.  Got it?  OK, now imagine it next to chocolate.  Does the sardine or chocolate change how you think you will feel about the chip?  It does to people presented the scenes in the lab–the chip seems like it will be better next to the sardine (which you are told you will not eat!). But when they actually eat the chip the sardine or chocolate is forgotten and the chip tastes the same.  People imagine their future self will feel like they do now–thinking of the chip in comparison, say, to the chocolate.  But the future self doesn’t experience that choice so vividly.

Thus when shopping our current self faces a choice that shapes our preference.  But the future self will not have the stereo speakers or television or furniture you didn’t pick to compare to.  So you sit and wonder why you made that choice that leaves you dissatisfied (because it doesn’t work well in your space)…and it’s because at when you bought your present self had one comparison to make (to other furniture), but in your living room it’s a different comparison.

One last example.  Imagine being lost in the woods with neither food nor water.  Which would be worse, the hunger or thirst? If you’ve just worked out you’re more likely to think thirst.  Present thirsty self dreams of a tomorrow that is like today–thirsty.

I find myself thinking of friends and their choices.  One who had a tattoo that she thought had been a terrible decision (will your 90 year old self still want that tattoo the 18 year old self did?)   I also think of people who marry, thinking the future will be like today.  It’s hard when infatuated to imagine diapers, bills, paunches, and arthritis.  (“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”) 

I also think of my mother, born in the 1920’s, before the Great Depression started.   How could she have imagined the crash, the war, my dad, all four of us Ahrens brothers, her grandkids, jet planes, the internet, and the microwave?  Heck, when she was born the Cardinals had won no World Series so her present self would not have had the experience of those 11 wins that have come since!

In principle our future self will be happier if we can imagine our futures as they will actually be rather than dreaming that they will be like today.  We can do that somewhat well.  (I’ve run a load of laundry while writing this, anticipating my future self’s need for clean towels.  I bet I got that right.) 

But how often do we need to just let go of the idea that we can imagine the future, accepting it as comes rather than trying to shape it to our preconceptions?




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