Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh expresses a great truth about human beings. The play is set in a rundown bar; all its characters are tramps and alcoholics who cope with their hopelessness of their predicament by living in an illusory future. Joe once owned a casino and keeps saying that he’s going to re-open it soon; Pat McGloin is a former police lieutenant who is waiting for the right time to appeal against the charges which led to him leaving the force; ‘Jimmy Tomorrow’ is a former journalist who keeps saying that ‘tomorrow’ he’s going to get a new job (hence his name), and so on. But tomorrow never comes, of course, and they all exist in limbo, anticipating a reality which never comes into being.
Another character, a salesman called Hickey, appears at the bar once a year, on his return from his sales trips. He’s recently stopped drinking, and feels like a new man, free and contented. He tries to persuade the characters to stop dreaming and try to achieve their goals. ‘Just stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows,’ he tells them. The next day all the men dress up in their best clothes, and head out into the city, planning to look up old contacts and find jobs.
None of them have any success, of course, and when they come back to the bar that evening they’re all in despair. Now that they’ve tried to achieve them, they realise how unfeasible their hopes were, and can’t use them to help keep them sane anymore. They can’t even find solace in drink now, and curse Hickey for showing them the truth. But then, after a few hours, the survival mechanism of looking forward kicks in again, and they go back to their drunken delusions, keeping faith in a tomorrow that never comes. The moral of O’Neill’s play is that human beings need to live in the future to stop them facing up to the present.
O’Neill’s characters are extreme examples, but this is a psychological strategy we all use frequently. Because we often feel dissatisfied in the present, we turn our attention away from it and take refuge in the future.
This can happen so subtly that you may not consciously be aware of the process. You might be at work on a Wednesday afternoon, feeling a little bored, or watching TV on your own in the evening, feeling a little lonely. You react to these negative feelings by looking into the future and scanning for any upcoming events or arrangements which you think you’re going to enjoy. You instinctively need to ‘latch on’ to something in the future. And after a few seconds you find it — you’ve arranged to go out for a drink with some friends on Saturday night. You picture yourself there, chatting and laughing and feeling exhilarated after a few drinks, and straight away your mood perks up, and the afternoon doesn’t seem quite as tedious.
Most of us try to make sure that there’s at least one pleasant future event at the back of our minds to turn our attention to. It could be a favourite TV programme, your favourite sports team’s next home again, or your next vacation. Or, perhaps slightly less commonly, we give ourselves much more long term aims to look forward to fulfilling — a plan to give up your humdrum job in a couple of years and start your own business or go travelling around the world, or pipedreams of ‘making it’ as an actor or pop star — so that we can look forward to the lifestyles we’ll have then.
This is part of the purpose of hopes and ambitions. It’s healthy to have them, of course, but they can become problematic when we focus so much attention on them that we ignore the present. We can easily spend all our time trying to push forward, directing all our energies into moving further ahead in our careers or to fulfilling our goals, to the point that ignore our experience in the present, like blinkered horses who can’t see anything but the track ahead of them.
And one of the problems with the future is that at some point it always becomes the present — and it usually doesn’t live up to our expectations. The night out or weekend away might be very pleasant, but somehow the reality wasn’t quite as exhilarating as the anticipation. Often this is because when we arrive in the future, we always take our psychological discord with us. What you didn’t include in your image of your holiday was that you’d be carrying around exactly the same mental baggage as at home.
But in a way this doesn’t matter, because as soon as one event passes, we replace it with another. Even if this vacation was disappointing, there’s always the next one. Even if achieving this goal was somehow anti-climatic, we can quickly set another one. The whole point of ‘looking forward’ isn’t to actually enjoy the event you anticipate, but to take you away from the present.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking to the future to a degree. If we know there are pleasant events in front of us, why shouldn’t we anticipate them and feel happy about them? But the point is that for many of us ‘looking forward’ becomes a strategy of escaping from the present. If we were happy in the present — in other words, if we felt comfortable within our own mental space — we would be much less focused on the future. If we were satisfied with ourselves, we would be much less focused on ambitions.
As a very perceptive observer of human nature, the 17th century French philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal was well aware of human beings’ inability to live in the present. As he wrote, “We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is…Thus we never actually live, but hope to live.”
If we live in the future, we miss out on life itself — which is only ever in the present.
Steve Taylor is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of our Minds, of which this article is an edited extract. He is a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.co.uk. His work has been described by Eckhart Tolle as an 'important contribution to the shift in consciousness occurring on our planet.'