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How Future Thinking Can Shift Our Perspective During COVID

Dr. Meghan Sullivan demonstrates a new way of coping during the pandemic.

This guest piece is written by Meghan Sullivan.

“Lift up your hearts! No more complaint and fear! It well may be some happier hour will find this memory fair.” — Virgil, Aeneid 1.198

Christmas 2020. I normally leave freezing South Bend to spend the holidays with my family in South Florida. There are poolside parties, inflatable Santas, and Italian buffets. This year, pandemic caution canceled all of that. My Christmas Eve consisted of a Peking duck ordered online and a family teleconference during a snowstorm.

Chris Montgomery/Unsplash
Source: Chris Montgomery/Unsplash

I felt pangs of regret that night. Was this depressing Zoom Christmas really worth it to increase the odds of healthy gatherings together down the road?

We all struggle with now-for-later tradeoffs. Our emotions tend to force a here-me-now perspective on our thinking. It is also hard intellectually to disentangle temporal delays (next Christmas is so far away...) from estimates about risk (maybe there won’t be another Christmas!). And stress gives us temporal tunnel vision, making our present predicament feel all-encompassing.

These are psychological challenges for how we perceive time. But philosophical reasoning can help us understand and manage our time biases, in the process recovering meaningful control over our future plans and resilience in the face of temporary hardships.

One way philosophy helps us is by developing our capacity for mental time travel. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought that one of the distinctive features of human intelligence is our capacity to take on new perspectives.

According to Plato, the most important skill we can teach children is the “art of measurement” — understanding the true value of things even when they seem far away from us. (Protagoras, 357) Cicero thought that the chief advantage we have over “the beasts” is that we can “connect and associate the present and the future.” The rational man sees the course of his whole life and makes necessary preparations now for living that life. (De Officiis, 11.4)

The crux of the ancient view is that what we care about ought to be guided by the actual value of options, not just how we perceive that value from our particular perspective. To understand real value, we have to imaginatively travel between perspectives.

This perspective-taking applies to many dimensions of the good life. For instance, developing moral reasoning means coming to realize that other people have significance and that the value of a particular option might look differently from where they are sitting. This requires talking ourselves through the knee-jerk resentment, narcissism, or shame that pressures us to undervalue or overvalue others’ perspectives. It also gives us the capacity to perceive common goods, and the capacity to negotiate through interpersonal crises.

Likewise developing our rational capacities means coming to realize that our present sacrifices, however onerous they feel, will appear to us differently at the other end of the crisis. Today’s lousy quarantine Christmas will seem like a valuable or heroic episode to our healthy future self celebrating with elderly relatives a year hence. And this sacrifice might even start to appear better to us now if we can describe our decisions using these cross-time reasons. So rather than describing the situation as “the pandemic ruined this Christmas” (temporal tunnel vision), we can describe the situation as “I invested in a quarantine this year to increase the chance for a happy Christmas next year” (extended time perspective). In this way, sacrifices are recast as negotiations with our future selves.

Perspective-taking is intellectually demanding, which is why we tend to be lazy about it. When it comes to other people, we sometimes have a tough time knowing what they really want or need, as anyone stuck in an interminable negotiation knows. Likewise, when we negotiate with our future selves, we encounter two problems — the uncertainty of knowing what we’ll really want in the future and the risk that comes with everything that might happen between our sacrifice now and our payoff later. Hardships tend to make every kind of uncertainty more catastrophic.

Disentangling time and risk is arguably a key virtue in our current pandemic. We underestimate the risk of present activities that a lifetime of habit mistakenly tells us are fine — eating in restaurants, hosting friends in our homes. We also overestimate the risk our present, headline-dominant crisis poses to what we’ll value further in the future. We think “Christmas will never be the same," and then mistakenly infer that future Christmasses will therefore be less valuable. We often fall into the same trap with more mundane now-for-later tradeoffs, like saving enough money for retirement. “I won’t spend money on the same activities when I am 65” does not license me to infer that my savings will be worth less in coming decades. Rational people make sacrifices knowing that they will change, but not all change is relevant to what they ought to value. Indeed, most of the evidence seems to show in the long run, our capacity to value our lives is relatively stable even across sudden personal shocks.

Perhaps the most important reason to practice mental time travel is that it is a precondition for having a meaningful concept of responsibility for events in our lives. There are different ways we might describe how this past year has gone. One description is passive — everything was closed, activities were canceled, life was interrupted. These descriptions are static — they describe events seemingly fixed in time and without any protagonist; only victims. There’s no resilience: no potential for bounce.

But adding mental time travel to the mix makes us a dynamic character in a more meaningful story. “In March 2020, I was returning from a work trip in Virginia when I realized how suddenly dangerous the coronavirus had become. A few days, later I moved my entire office into my dining room. I figured out ways to celebrate Easter and even Christmas with my family online. In 2030, we will try to explain this to the littlest nieces and nephews at a December pool party. They will be fascinated with our family’s ingenuity.” Action takes place over time, and while the now might be challenging, we can derive meaning from the insight that our decisions are helping to bring about that later we care about.

Meghan Sullivan, used with permission
Source: Meghan Sullivan, used with permission

About the Author: Meghan Sullivan is the Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Time Biases: A Theory of Rational Planning and Personal Persistence (Oxford University Press, 2018). She also directs the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, which has assembled an interdisciplinary group of fellows in 2021-2022 to conduct research on resilience.