Living in the Present, Imagining the Future

Think about your life. What are you concerned about? How do you spend your time and energy? Who are the important people in your life? Now, think back 10 years. Would you have thought, back then, that you would answer those questions 10 years later the way you just did?

Science magazine recently published a report on a series of three studies conducted by psychologists Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson. The studies compared how much people's lives actually change over a 10-year period with how much people imagine their lives will change in a decade. The studies all demonstrated that our lives change much more dramatically than we expect them to. We move away from careers we once were passionate about. We come to want to get rid of tattoos we thought we'd love forever. Ditto for spouses, in some unfortunate cases. The researchers discovered that we tend to believe that the person we are now is the person we'll be for the rest of our lives. They call this the "End of History Illusion." They argue that this inability to imagine ourselves differently leads us to make choices that sometimes we later regret.

Though the authors of the report don't draw ethical conclusions from their work, it is not difficult for us to suggest one or two. First, good decision-making seems to depend upon our ability to grasp the reality that we will change over time and that we need to make decisions that allow room for those unforeseen possibilities to develop. Second, this means that imagination, our capacity for seeing what does not exist, may serve a more crucial function than we realize.

Of course, it is impossible for us to imagine with precision what the future holds. But this doesn't mean we are doomed to making bad choices. We don't need to know the future to make better decisions. We need to imagine it in its difference from today. Simply knowing that we are not today the people we will be 10 years hence provides the awareness of being a person-in-progress that we require in order to avoid making choices that prematurely close down too many options and wall off the openness that leads to the fullest possible life.

This inability to imagine the future and this sense that things are now as they will always be seems to exist at the global level, as well. We learn history in school in a way that suggests that the whole story of the world has led up to this moment, that now is the summit of all time (the "End of History Illusion"). We can't imagine a world other than the one we have. And so we tend to make choices that negatively affect the distant future, despite all warnings. This keeps us from envisioning, and as a result from working toward, a better set of conditions for our world than presently exist and it does real damage to our future. Our inability to imagine the condition of the world after the effects of climate change have set in, for example, leads to our lack of will to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in precisely the future we cannot bring ourselves to envision. Equally devastating, our inability to imagine a more peaceful, just, and humane world saps our drive and desire to go out and create it. This is a condition that affects us all in ethical and in material terms.

For those of us who are Christian, however, it also has a profound spiritual dimension. Our religion teaches us that God has promised to bring about the creation of a "new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 21). There is a coming kingdom of peace and justice, one without suffering and death (Isa. 25:8; Rom. 8), where there is righteousness and goodness, where God is all-in-all (1 Cor. 15). In the "New Jerusalem," there is healing for the nations and everlasting joy beside the banks of the river of life.

How do we imagine this? As a completely new reality that God brings about after wiping away the present creation and starting over? As the perfection or completion of our existing cosmos? As a metaphor for being able to encounter the new creation now by somehow transcending the present order? How we imagine this future will also affect in deeply significant ways the manner in which we live today.

Can we say with precision what future it is that these biblical images represent? Of course not. But can we begin to imagine it? Of course we can! And what if we did? What if we allowed ourselves to imagine the resurrection of Jesus really is what the church claims it to be: the first movement in God's symphony of all-embracing love and reconciliation? What if we allowed our imaginations to mull over the fact that we, too, are part of that new heaven and new earth? That we, too, are part of the new creation that God is bringing into being? We may not know exactly what that new creation looks like, but imagining it would give us a sense of the radical transformation that is coming. Wouldn't this provoke in us a sense that were are living, as the New Testament puts it, between the "now" and the "not-yet," a time in which that future promise of new life, of new creation, is partially available to us now—precisely through our imaginative acceptance of and bodily living into that gift? Wouldn't this allow us to actively anticipate the fulfillment of those promises by living in a way that better reflects them?

Such an imagination will not give us all the answers to the "how should we live" question. But it will suggest a different framework for action. God has promised a good future. A beautiful future. It is up to us to set that as a guiding vision. How we imagine this coming reality, even if we can do so only in a humble, limited way, makes a world of difference in how we conduct ourselves today.