How to Hold the Future
The chief question of my adult life has been: What am I going to do today?
How we live our days is ultimately how we live our years. The question of “What am I going to do today?” — asked habitually yet earnestly — eventually amalgamates into the question of “How will I live?”
As a progressive, I have one core belief: That our social and economic world is largely shaped by human ideas and institutions. The progressive draws a distinction between immutable natural phenomena, such as gravity, and mutable human phenomena, like governments and money.
The progressive’s second belief follows on from this. They believe that our world can be made radically different. If there is a human spirit, it is this anxious restlessness that seeks to exceed our institutions and the ideas of humanity they hold implicit. It’s a soul you can see.
Therefore, the progressive often answers the question of “What am I going to do today?” by standing in an ill-defined future, a murky realm of pure potential, and projecting backwards in to the present. The progressive is divided between the world as it is and the many ways the world may become.
It is a challenging space to be, and for some the rift between a gritty and unjust present and an inconceivable future is experienced as a kind of paralysis — a sense that today has no connection to tomorrow.
This rift can tempt us to shirk our responsibility to make the future. Some people follow, wide-eyed, the contrails of Elon Musk or the movements of socially-concerned venture capital. Others put faith in the technology itself, claiming that liberation will come through Blockchain or automation. The more cynical wait for a revolutionary moment, a day when things become so intolerable that people take to the streets. With a dark excitement they scarcely acknowledge, news that things are getting worse are heralded as proof that things will eventually get better.
So the story goes — our liberation will come from without, and one day soon we’ll all be able to travel the world, work fifteen hours a week, and love as deeply and easily as Disney characters. It’s an old promise rooted deeply in our Christian heritage.
Still others who dare not believe in a radically different future instead eviscerate their own imagination. The battle becomes the war. Gender equality becomes gender representation on corporate boards. Reforming our education system to teach citizenship and personhood becomes reforming education for employability. Responsible stewardship of the planet becomes pallet gardens and meat-free Mondays.
Either we delegate radicalism to power and history, or else we believe it’s not possible at all. The future is a fruit to either be harvested by others, or else to die on the vine.
People are unable to live their days as they wish to live their lives.
We need a flickering light beyond the dark mountain. We don’t need a map, just a compass and a destination, held closely but not too closely. Our challenge is to hold the future in mind — unknown, unclear, and inchoate and yet still move forward.
The question of “What am I going to do today?” begins small but quickly looms large. It begins as personal but becomes political. At every step of the journey, the future is uncertain.
Beginning to answer the question can be a daunting task. I’ve relied on a simple approach called Kolb’s Listening Model. I offer it here not as anything especially radical, but as a modest process of experiential learning that connects theory to praxis:
We begin with direct Experience — the genesis of all education lies in the senses. We both experience and notice ourselves experiencing. When we notice ourselves caught up in something deeply satisfying, interesting, or curious, we know we are sniffing at the edges of new possibilities.
This act of noticing what resonates with us informs the next part of the process, Reflection. I distinguish the model above from Kolb’s original model by arguing that while reflection is personal (our values), it also involves making descriptive claims about the world we live in (our beliefs). We understand ourselves and our world through our senses.
Next, we Plan how we will realise those values. Quit your job, move overseas! Our plan must agree with our personal values, but also our beliefs about how the world works. In technical terms, this is sometimes called a “theory of change.” The best plans draw on history, the liberal arts (especially critical theory), and the social sciences.
We should begin Doing almost as soon as we begin planning, as it is only through doing that we dialogue with the world. The question is: “What am I going to do today?”, not tomorrow.
You’ll do all these stages simultaneously, because that’s how our minds work.
It seems simple and it is. It’s something we understood better as young children, before education became synonymous with schooling. It is an approach that puts our values and dreams where they belong — in our feet.