Why Is It So Hard to Plan for the Future?

Our feelings regarding death, separation and nothingness may shed some light.

Posted Jan 03, 2019

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Our feelings about death, separation, and nothingness may help us understand why human beings seem to have such difficulty looking at the future, planning for 20, 50, 200, 500 years down the road. Feelings of distress surrounding loss, death, and separation make it rough to tolerate thinking about times when we won’t be around.

The anxiety may be exacerbated in those who did not have “good enough” parenting, leading to what the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called “annihilation anxiety.” The notion of “not existing” can stir up distress and fear. Some of these feelings are magnified by the childhood antecedents, that is, the times early in life when the vulnerable baby or young child experienced separations, loss, lack of understanding, or whatever, and could do little to protect herself. Such experiences touch on the need for human beings to be recognized, remembered, validated.

Another reason humans may have difficulty dealing with the future has to do with a different aspect of emotion and cognition, namely that our brains seem to have evolved to attend to more immediate stimuli. Affects are very brief, lasting milliseconds, and they occur in response to external or internal stimuli. That suggests they are important in terms of dealing with problems in the immediate present.

Planning for the future requires something more of our cortex. Even when we can utilize our brain to plan and consider long-range consequences, human beings seem to struggle with anything much longer than a decade or two. Witness the problem most people have in saving money for the future. Or how much trouble humans have in doing something about the fact that oil will not last much longer, or addressing the global warming issue.

When it comes to thinking in terms of thousands or millions or billions of years, whether past or future, we truly seem overwhelmed. This may in part be why creationism, rather than science and evolution, maintains such popularity. It is not only a question of education but a capacity to tolerate feelings and think in terms of millions, billions of years—and one’s own nonexistence and being truly forgotten. Stephen Jay Gould has done a marvelous job in books such as Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History, in describing what millions and billions of years really look and feel like in terms of natural history.

Similarly, New York Times writer Dennis Overbye described a study by Krauss and Scherrer which suggested that in 100 billion years, given our expanding universe, the only galaxies left visible in the sky will be the half-dozen or so bound together gravitationally into what is known as the Local Group (June 5, 2007). Overbye called it “one of the more depressing scientific papers I have ever read.” How’s that for demonstrating how these issues stir up feelings?!

References

Gould SJ (1993). Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History. New York: WW Norton.