We humans, though mired in the present, long to know what the future has in store for us. The present is ordinary and routine, proceeds one day at a time. By contrast, the future is a tableau onto which we can project our hopes and fufill our dreams. Eager for a preview of what lies ahead, we have for centuries scanned tarot cards and consulted with soothsayers, palm readers and astrologers. Without the future, the present would be duller and short on purpose. The future energizes the present, enables us to accept its challenges and establishes the foundations for subsequent rewards. Those who live in the past are generally regarded as narrow minded and misguided; praise goes to those who believe in and look toward the future.
The United States, never much wedded to tradition, has always kept the future very much in focus (a large percentage of the current crop of “futurists” are no doubt Americans.) Most everyone arriving from overseas had concluded they had no future back there. But America, they understood, was all about the future and they could become part of it. They could cast off ancient arrangements and join a fluid forward-looking society in which they could rise and prosper. And if in the short run their prospects didn’t much improve, it would not be so for the next generation and beyond. In a country of rapid change, how could one not look to the future? In a land where technological advances seemed virtually guaranteed, It was hard to imagine anything but progress up ahead?
So much of our personal lives involve preparing for the future. We undergo years and years of schooling so that we can enter the future prepared and confident. Along the way we’re questioned repeatedly about our future intentions. How do we intend to earn a living? Most of us plan to get married and so expend considerable time and energy engaged in serial relationships and mating rituals in an effort to discover someone best suited to help create a durable family and to nurture future offspring.
Even in the here and now, the future’s but a thought away. We look forward most all the time. Beginning Monday we’re already gazing ahead to Friday, the end of the work week and start of the weekend. In the spring, students think about little else than the end of the school year and to summer vacations ahead. What avid fan can’t help but count the days before the baseball, football or basketball seasons begin? And for family members there are the holidays and special occasions – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, graduation, weddings; preparations for, and anticipation of, these upcoming celebrations begin well in advance. In all these instances present and future are fused, time is eclipsed, pleasure extended.
The future also imposes obligations on the present. Just as the squirrels need gather and store nuts for consumption in winter, we must put money aside for future needs – rainy days, college tuition, retirement years. Less welcome, but necessary, are preparations for a future that involves long-term care, power-of-attorney, living wills, last wills and cemetery plots. Far too often individual procrastination overrides systematic preparation. Our nation stands equally guilty. Beyond acknowledging their urgency, the U.S. has nonetheless done little to address such growing problems as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, its crumbling infrastructure or long-term energy needs.
Most worrisome of late is the notable erosion of faith in the future among a majority of Americans. Negative feedback about the future has unsettled the present. America’s storyline regarding the future, long the basis of our optimism, seems less persuasive than ever. The foundations for a sound and secure future viz. stable home prices, affordable health care, job availability, college affordability pension sufficiency and American competitiveness are no longer guaranteed. Meanwhile, America’s political system is deadlocked and the continued world leadership of the United States is in some doubt. Because our prospects have been so uncertain, pessimism has spread, thereby presenting a monumental challenge to the culture of optimism which has long sustained our people and our nation. Orphan Annie assures us that “the sun will come out tomorrow”, but youthful optimism, though most welcome, cannot alone displace the clouds of uncertainty that have of late cast long shadows over the land.