“We are in desperate need of this thing called a future.” - Alan Watts
I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve been fed a line.
"If you work hard enough, one day you will arrive."
I can reach far backward into my childhood and find hints of it. It may not have been put into crisp, clear words, but it certainly wriggled its way into the subtext of my life narrative.
Arrive? At what exactly?
In career, arrival meant reaching a state of high achievement--completing graduate school, having a distinguished career as a respected psychologist, earning enough money to provide for a family, give to charity, and go on fun vacations.
In church, the promise of arrival was heaven, where my soul would rest in a state of eternal happiness.
In relationships, arrival meant finding someone who will make me feel whole, and starting a family of my own.
In society, the promise of arrival is contained in the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), the notion that the life being lived without me holds the key to a sense of wholeness.
And living in a capitalist society, I continue to be inundated with the message that owning the latest new piece of technology will exponentially enhance my quality of life.
Recently, as I have begun to arrive at some of these milestones, a noticeable contradiction tugs at my pant-leg. While I’ve enjoyed short-lived moments of celebration, ecstasy, and relief at having reached my goals, I can’t help but hear echoes inside an empty vessel of expectation.
What’s strange is, for years, I never gave much critical thought to the notion of arrival: I assumed that it would feel vindicating and ecstatic to “get there.” I assumed it would get good and stay good. This was especially true for the excessively long road to licensure as a psychologist in Michigan and then again in California.
In reality, I celebrated with friends on a couple of occasions over drinks and delicious food, and then…well...life got back to business as usual, more or less.
Even more recently, I moved from a bedroom in a cramped corner room of the house into a much more spacious, multi-windowed room overlooking the front yard filled with trees, luscious plants, and sunlight. For months, I plotted to make this move. I dreamt of the colors I would paint the walls, how nice it would be to stretch out, how satisfying it would be to invest myself into this new space.
And now I’m here.
Once again, arrival delivers new possibilities, packaged in the muted hues of a new ordinary.
It's not to say I'm disappointed per se; the space is measurably and qualitatively better than the last one. I do enjoy the time I spend in my room, far more than the time I spent in my other room. When I open the curtains, the sun warms the walls and brightens my day.
While most people have experienced this phenomenon at some point, it’s striking that this fantasy lurks in the background of daily life, as we daydream about the weekend, the next vacation, a raise or the promise of a new job. It endures, as though we haven’t all felt the empty pang of anticlimax at the end of a long journey. With so many repeated brushes with this experience, wouldn't it make sense for us to develop a more reality-based expectation for our futures?
Further yet, wouldn’t it behoove us to create an entirely different relationship with the present, wherein we could, as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, recognize that “if this isn’t a wonderful moment, I don’t know what is?” From the standpoint of logic, this seems far more functional, right?
Yet we know from depth psychology that fantasy doesn’t play by rationality's rules. Fantasy operates on unconscious and subconscious levels; it follows the rules of needs and dreams; of feelings and mythos. Our deepest selves operate by a set of rules vastly different than what we were taught in school, which can lead us to hair-pulling frustration or, if we get to know them better, a sense of awe and wonderment.
The Drive to Stay Alive
From an awe-based point of view, consider this:
Human beings have the unique ability to transcend the present moment through our powerful capacity for meta-cognition, rocketing us backward into memories of the past and in the next moment forward into images of as-of-yet-un-lived lives in some imagined future. Imagination is an incredible thing—no other animal can boast the ability to paint mental realities, at least not to the depth and breadth that we are able.
But curiously, not only are we capable of doing this—we seem to need to. In states of anxiety, we can’t seem to help ourselves from perseverating on narrow, dreadful versions of a future that may or may not ultimately materialize.
On the creative side of the coin, the most awe-inspiring structures of civilization themselves—palaces, statues, parks, courthouses and skyscrapers—are concrete creations made by people who transcended their present reality to envision a world vastly different than the one they could see with their eyes.
How our ability to do this translates into a need to do so is a question philosophers and phenomenologists have explored.
Through an existential lens, I know how deeply the fear of death can shake my ability to stay in the present. The greater my uncertainty about the ground on which I stand, the more I find myself writing down lists of projects to tackle in the future. What are these listed items, but attempts to alleviate that sneaking feeling in the back of my mind that my life might not amount to much in the grand scheme, and that no matter what, I too will have to face death alone. That’s a bleak mental space to tolerate for very long.
The monuments we build—whether physical structures, ideologies, spiritual beliefs, or relationships—they all serve as buffers from death’s constant looming in the background, at least according to anthropologist Ernest Becker. Since Becker wrote The Denial of Death in 1973, a massive body of research has supported what seems rather evident (at least in my own mind)—that people have a deep need to carve meaning out of life as a way to assert ourselves against the ever-present threat of non-being.
The fantasy of arrival persists as part of our fight to exist. At its best, it can serve as an antidote to the existential dread; instead of collapsing at the thought that the most certain thing my future holds is death and decline, the fantasy of arrival paints a cheerier, almost idyllic picture of a future wherein I become a better, happier version of myself. Even if this picture turns out to be a facsimile, I can just as easily paint a new horizon line once I get there.
As we can see, the fantasy of arrival is a double edged sword. It can serve as motivation, a belief that "getting there" is of dire importance to push me past selfish wishes to check out or procrastinate. In other moments, the fantasy seems to mock my personal and emotional limits by reminding me of all I’m missing by staying home rather than venturing out to expand my horizons.
Function and FOMO
I’d like to take a moment to focus on a form this fantasy takes that seems to cut particularly deep in today’s culture, and illustrates the fantasy at its extremest state.
The phenomenon I’m referring to is FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, an experience that seems to be increasingly prevalent in American culture. FOMO is experienced as "there is so much in this world to be experienced, how can I possibly take it all in—and yet I must!" A colleague tells me of an incredible workshop she attended on emerging research on the relationship between the micro-biome in the gut and mental wellness, and I feel a vague pang of jealousy and guilt in my own gut. FOMO gives me indigestion sometimes.
In FOMO is fantasy of arrival to the extreme: my attention is scattered, constantly barraged with opportunities to pine for new information and novel experiences, each of which vaguely contains a promise of greater wholeness. FOMO is a constant state of dissatisfied longing for what, who, or where I am not. “Arrival” is not a single point, but a scatter plot of thousands of external opportunities to experience something new.
In a state of FOMO, I am unsettled, ever-thirsty, eternally eager.
Then I try to make it all happen, and I’m exhausted. The desire to have it all leads me through a cycle of seek and exhaust, until prospects once exciting start to lose their luster altogether.
Michael Meade tells us that this is a problem particularly for the average millennial raised on the notion that "you can become anything you want." By opening the door of possibilities so wide, it can become downright overwhelming. Meade challenges this notion by asking "if you are told you can become anything you want, how are you going to find out who you are supposed to be?" This question reminds me of something we understand about attachment.
A child comes into the world with in-born proclivities that meet the world and immediately take their shape through interaction. What if we imagined a child with a natural gift of organizing physical space, but then told the child “My god, all the things you could be! You could be a city planner, an engineer, you could work for NASA, or you could be an artist, or no—maybe an art curator!”
This perspective is in essence a challenge to FOMO: if your primary task in life is to become who you are, the experiences that are integral are those that deepen and bring that forth. As Kierkegaard titled one of his books, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” By this, he was pointing to the importance of brushing aside those pursuits that are peripheral to make way for what is essential.
Personally, I have found some comfort in this perspective. When I buy into the notion that purchasing yet another component to make my record player sound warmer will significantly improve my quality of life, I'm almost guaranteed to find myself in a state of eventual ennui, wanting for more. But if I can connect--even for a moment--with what larger purpose I have, or what will bring me closer to who I am, my future actions feel anchored in meaning, rather than ambivalent desire.
And this is not to endorse some less-is-more ethos: at times, focusing in this way leads me to spend more money rather than less, or makes me more active than meditative. This is no call for a contemplative life or product placement for mindfulness. It is not even moralistic, though it is a shift in ethos.
It is a shift in valuation, from what might get me closer to some future state that might be better than my current one (and let's face it--may never really come) to one that focuses on who I am now and what will ultimately draw me further into who I am becoming as a contributing member of society and as a human being who aspires toward depth as well as breadth.
This isn’t easy. In my own experience, I have only managed to make this shift temporarily, before getting drawn back into the habit of day-dreaming once again. A friend and I spoke about this recently, and he suggested that this vacillation between these two perspectives may be the most natural thing for us to do. To remain only in present focus with laser-like focus on what’s most important is no healthier than living in a state of constant distraction.
There is a William Stafford poem that captures well this way of holding both the state of now and the thread of constant evolving-toward-newness that defines us as humans:
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
By tapping in, however momentarily, to my own thread, I find both solace and motivation that runs deep, that draws me into creative endeavors in a way that the fantasy of arrival cannot always deliver.
But even this can become a fantasy to cling to—that I can grab the thread, hold it, and never let go. So the way I like to think of it is that the thread remains, even when I’ve let go. I can move away and come back, move away and come back again.
That has been true even of writing this article over the past six months. Though you could certainly call it procrastination, I believe it has been valuable to let go of the thread, to walk away and think about other things, to have conversations with friends, and to dream.
I believe this is a self-compassionate way to hold the thread, one that recognizes that our fantasy of arrival persists for good reason, even with its limitations in delivering.