The Most Important Contribution


 The Future is in Our Hands

While we can’t change the past, our perceptions do evolve over time. What once seemed like bad luck becomes a stroke of genius; or a crushing mistake leads us to opened doors we never knew existed. Other times, after facing unimaginable defeat or loss, many months or years later, we look back only to discover that the event was a turning point and now serves as the foundation for wisdom.

But, just how malleable is the future? Can we choose it, or do we get chosen? Does it happen to us or do we happen to it? Or, like a garden, is the future something we tend and cultivate through our thoughts, words, and actions – a result of the ripening of causes and conditions?

The Future is not a Destination

Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet “just as people for a long time had a wrong idea about the sun’s motion, they are even now wrong about the motion of what is to come. The future stands still, dear Mr. Kappus, but we move in infinite space”.

What a startling thought, that the future is not something we arrive at, like a destination. Rather, we are moving in infinite and unbounded space from which the future steps into us, because it has always been there, waiting for us to arrive. Rilke goes on to say “the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us, as if from outside”.

Time is tricky, we think of it as sequential and chronological, but try imagining it as multi-dimensional. The seeds of our future (and eventually what becomes our present and then our past) are planted – sometimes quite recently, sometimes years ago, and sometimes in previous generations and then they fold into and around themselves where we either consciously or unconsciously tend them through our thoughts, words, and actions.

The Future is Here, It is Just Unevenly Distributed

The seeds of the future are all around us. We may not see them, but if you look, the future is always here, visible and adjacent to the world we live in day to day. You can look for the seeds in the polarity of two phenomena – the telltale signs of things that are falling apart or crumbling, and the inklings of new things that are just now beginning to come to life. In other words, to see the future look for what is dying and needs to be released because it no longer serves our needs, and then look for what is seeking to be born by becoming aware of the emergent ideas, beliefs, practices, or technologies that are arising in the field around us.

William Gibson spoke to this by saying “the future is here, it is just unevenly distributed”. What he was observing is that the future does not happen to all of us all at once, at the same time, and in the same way. We have  met people and been to places that seem ahead of the curve and others who seem to hail from yester-year.

Contrary to the chronological notion of time, time is probably the most elastic dimension. The future unfolds as we step into it. Rilke says, “nothing alien happens to us, but only what has long been our own…” It is only through stillness and silence that we can touch those places within ourselves where the future resides, which is why the winter is such an important part of the cycle when we, like Persephone, travel to the world below the surface of what we call our lives to discover what is awaiting us.

We’re All Part of a Co-created Reality (And That Includes the Future)

We are all in this together. We are all winners and losers, or there are no winners and losers, just us. If we move beyond the personal view, time – past, present, future – connects us as one organism, which makes what we do with our lives and how we treat other people so essential in determining the qualities and attributes of our co-created reality. This is ultimately how the future arises. The Buddha called it karma or the ripening of causes and conditions.

Fundamentally, time is a socially constructed reality built around a shared perception about what we “believe” is real. To the degree to which something becomes tangible or real to us, and therefore defining, is simply a matter of consensus or agreement. Yes, the emperor may have no clothes, and it may only be a matter of time before everyone sees what we see, but until then, the dominant paradigm or status quo is the operating rule. So, how do we relate to this often-lonely state of seeing that the dominant paradigm or status quo is empty and barren of possibility?

Four Approaches: Denial, Anger, Sacrifice, and Stewardship

There are four ways that we humans typically meet the future. The first is that we can ignore the signs of birth and death and let them happen to us when they happen. Usually acting shocked or surprised “when it happens to us, as if from outside”. We do this at our own peril, yet this is the predominant way we hold the future. As long as we are comfortable, the cave being on fire is an abstract thought, at least until we run for our lives. This way of meeting the future is also called denial.

The second way we meet the future is to be totally focused on the restraining forces (what we don’t like) and either through brut force or stick-by-stick, build and dismantle the edifices we call “reality”. This can be as innocuous as complaining and whining or full on collisions between worlds. Those of us engaged in change (and in this sense, all change is actually “social” change, for good or ill), often spend our lives “fighting” for our causes and seeking to “tear down the walls” of the thing we are opposed to and don’t like, because we want things to be different. So, by golly, we are going to fight for what we want. While at times rage is the only way to muster the energy necessary to break through blockages, whether in regimes or relationships, the cost is often enormous, and over the long run it leaves us depleted.

Thirdly we can act as a mid-wife to ease the passing of the dominant paradigm, which is not exactly the same as supporting the dominant paradigm, but also not the same as starving it. For some, hospicing the old and dying is a mission. Those of us who chose to call in the future by helping the system become more aware of it’s self believe we are in service to the greater whole, and maybe we are. But, the challenges of this position are twofold – one, feeling victimized by our sacrifices, and two becoming an enabler of the very thing we want to change by keeping it comfortable.

The dominant paradigm is a tenacious little bugger that will do everything it can to survive including tricking us into believing we are being compassionate. To serve the future by tending to the dominant paradigm (be honest here) requires that we awaken ourselves to the truth of what we are attending. We may be sacrificing ourselves to feed the monster.

And fourthly, we can become stewards and tend to the seeds that are the nuclei of the future, recognizing as Rilke did that “what we call fate does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us”.

If we create the future and we get it right (meaning the new world is better than the old one), the dominant paradigm will transform before our eyes. So, if you think about Rilke’s notion, it is possible to imagine painting a door and simply walk through into a new reality by becoming the change we wish to see. Really embodying that which we are wishing for, by truly seeing what is asking to be born. If we continue fearing and imagining a dystopic future, we will create one, but to do that we will have to become those people. It won’t just happen to us. We have to become that which we want to see.

The Most Important Contribution

This year, rather than denying the wall’s existence (you know the one we are collectively hitting or about to hit), or spending another year tearing down walls with conflict and violence, or tending to the wall in the hopes that it will “get better” and we can change it, in this new year let us wake up to the reality of what is happening to us (the planet). Take the time to see, and name, what is dying and what is seeking to be born. Become the change you want to see. Think of this as the most important contribution to the future any of us can make.

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