“The attitude of seeking fulfillment in the future and viewing each present act as means to later joys,” John Lachs wrote in Intermediate Man, “tends to destroy the natural satisfaction that attends the exercise of each of our parts.” It’s an attitude, he was saying, that deprives us of immediacy and its intrinsic rewards, and encourages us to fret about things far beyond our control. He was already anticipating his own later stance as a pragmatic stoic, who’s learned the futility of ceaseless effort directed at outcomes we’ll never know or enjoy.
“Once attention is shifted from the future and we begin to enjoy activities at the time we do them and for what they are, we have transcended the mentality that views life as a process of mediation toward distant ends.”
There’s the rub, for me. Of course we owe it to ourselves to enjoy our lives and not let them slip away in dark clouds of distress over all the possibilities for future failure that cross our minds. We owe it to our children to show them how to do that. But we also owe it to ourselves and them to dream a little dream of a flourishing future for all our descendants.
I think we’re ennobled when we keep one eye on the future, and diminished when we don’t. I think the challenge of living is to enjoy our lives while not forgetting that they are indeed part of a process, while not allowing ourselves to transcend the mentality that views life as a chain we bear considerable responsibility for sustaining and extending.
It may sound a bit grim, that focus on perpetual responsibility for the future. It isn’t, if we allow our speculations and dreams about distant ends and the possible futures we’ll never know at first hand to expand our catalog of positive possibility.
And it isn’t, if we give ourselves permission to take regular breaks from the feeling of burdensome responsibility and relax for a little while into pure immediacy. William James called those breaks moral holidays, and (contrary to Lachs’s understanding) he was all for them. “I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays,” not because the world’s fate is in better hands than ours but precisely because it isn’t.
The visionaries of the Long Now Foundation dream of a day, possibly a day in the year 12,016, when tourists on holiday will journey to a destination that houses an ancient clock. There they will marvel at the foresight and mentality of people who taught themselves, ten thousand years in the past, to transcend a life of pure and exclusive immediacy.
Lachs also favors moral holidays, of course, and cares deeply about the future – especially the immediate future of his students. I would simply encourage him to extend the purview of that care, and enjoy the view from 12,016 – now, while it’s still one of our possibilities.
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