Our Troublesome Fascination with the Present

This post has changed directions dramatically right in front of me. The change was directed by my frequent effort to “think against myself.”

The image at the top of this post strikes me as immensely wise. Darwin’s reference to “waste” suggests that we sometimes opt for sloppy ways to use our time, instead of making productive choices about how to use our time.

Similarly, one of my most dependable mentors, Seneca, echoes the sentiments we often hear when older people are asked to give advice to those who will be their legacy:

                         It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much                         of it. Life  is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently                                   generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very                                       greatest things if the whole of it is well  invested. But when it is                                 squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no                             good end, we perceive  that it has passed away before we were                                 aware that it was passing. So it is—the  life we receive is not short,                         but we make it so.

Darwin and Seneca are pleading with us to consider time as our vital tool to fashion a better world. In short, focus on future effects of out use of time.

As I sketched this post in my mind, I thought of mountains of illustrations of human failure to heed their probable future:

  1. We will die, but we do not live as if we are dying.
  2. 98% of the National Academy of Science warns that many current coastal cities face an underwater fate  But many of us prefer alternative counter-facts that protect us from devoting tax money to the kind of rational response to rising water levels that the Netherlands began decades ago.
  3. The Army Corps of Engineers has now warned us for decades that 75% of our bridges are unsafe. But bridges cost money to build, and we all seem to think we need a new car now.
  4. During the child-bearing years, we know that most forms of sexual behavior can result in a life-altering transformation of our lives. Yet, the huge number of unwanted pregnancies give testament to our embrace of the present.
  5. Almost none of us wishes to be obese, and we know that some cultures eat in a manner that almost guarantees a healthy Body Mass Index. Yet, casual observation at most restaurants reveals serving portions and types of food chosen because they satisfy the NOW.
  6. Some democracies see agony abroad, and their leaders and the empathetic push for national engagement to rid the horrors from our nightly news. Afghanastan, Rwanda, Syria, and South Sudan be gone. Leaders are too sophisticated to ask their citizens whether they wish to actually pay for the destruction of psyches and resources associated with these interventions abroad. The public wishes to fight “evil” for free and shifts the debt onto future generations.

I was planning to conclude by suggesting that our surrender to the present and its impulses is a more  debilitating human failing than the combined effect of any 10 cognitive biases we might list.  And perhaps that thought was the place to stop.

But wait a minute. Perhaps mild forms of our failure to think about the future are not altogether crazy. Entire cultures are based on being in the present and honoring its demands and opportunities.

Acolytes of the present are on to something important: sure bridges may collapse and pregnancy tests may haunt us, but those are just possibilities. You might respond by saying “no, they are probabilities.”  I know, but your probability estimates are also based on probabilistic assumptions. But the present, ah the present. Its immediacy is real; it is in my grasp, in a manner that the future never can be. A southern praline tastes scrumptious now; the diabetes I risk is a monster in mist too thick for my eyes to penetrate. Maybe I am desperate to justify what Ovid describes as our seeing the good, but doing the other. I know I should not eat the next kielbasa I encounter, but almost surely I will make short work of it unless I have prepared for the temptation by drinking 2 large glasses of water or my wife voices her censorial contempt. The pleasure I will experience from the sausage has a resonance that is alive and  certain. I cannot hear my arteries screaming “enough”; I know people who have eaten junk and lived into their nineties. Such thinking is tragic and pathetic, but we are treacherously fascinated with the present.

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