The future is where it’s at, those life advisers used to say. Plan your next five years, dream big, book that holiday to Spain, happiness lies around the next corner. And never look back.
Snake-oil merchants selling the wonders of the future have not been much in evidence of late. Since coronavirus slowed down the world, ambitions have been wound in, holidays curtailed and we are pitched again into uncertainty.
These eerie past few months have meant that many of us, without any clear line forward, have found ourselves in the far less trendy temporal dimension of the past.
During lockdown, we were plonked in our real domestic lives and, almost on autopilot, began a process of clearing out our houses, disposing of all the things that had accumulated around us. Rather than planning forwards, here we were sorting backwards.
The excuse of having no time to do it had dissolved. Kitchen cupboards were organised enough for an inspection by the queen, cars were washed, children’s stuff tidied up, that pile of paperwork dealt with – how mundane, yet how satisfying.
If they tell you to never look back, that is because the past is not just a kitchen cupboard where you’ve stashed the out-of-date herbs – the first thing I think most of us cleaned out. Go a few layers deeper and it is a daunting place. There are some victories and good times in there, but strewn about it are the shards of broken promises and half-finished projects.
Which drawer or untouched folder, once opened, would reveal the failures we’d rather stay buried, or all the other futures we planned out but couldn’t make happen?
In normal times, it is easier to open a new sheet of the notebook and start looking ahead, writing lists of goals and holiday escapes or searching the internet for the next object of desire – a new place to live, another job, the perfect car in which you can speed away from the past.
But the future, in recent months, has become an equally uncomfortable place. Governments, caught in the double bind of the ill health of their people and the ill health of their economy, have become erratic: Open this, close that, stay at home, go there, no don’t go there. Which way to turn? Is it worth planning anything other than the simplest drink with friends?
And as for money, which brave soul would take out a mortgage now, let alone launch a business – unless you are in hand sanitisers or a blacksmith churning out copies of the Sword of Damocles. Only the blindest of optimists would not foresee a savage recession coming in, a pulling tight of our coats around us as autumn approaches.
In normal times, it is easier to open a new sheet of the notebook and start looking ahead, writing lists of goals and holiday escapes.
Flinching away from what comes next and bored of the “now” – our own four walls, which we have come to know too well – has left some of us, after the organising of the cupboards and the paperwork, with time to fix things. This has been like a sabbatical of sorting out our affairs: Working out priorities and necessities, finding out where all the money is going and even reaching Zen-like acceptance that some things will never get done, or will never be done again. It has been achieved without the chatter of the snake-oil merchants of the future trying to lure us away into the next project, the next spending spree, the next evasion.
Of course, if you invested a mere £250 (S$447) an hour, you’d find that the good psychoanalysts of Hampstead advise that the way forward is not grand planning but, rather, undertaking a study of one’s hinterland – because clearing out your emotional cupboards is the way to make progress.
The lighter 21st-century version of this is the Marie Kondo school of thought: Locate those moth-eaten jumpers, consider them, then throw them out – unless moths spark joy. The principle is similar: Spend time fixing what is behind.
These past few months might have felt like a combination of stasis and chaos, where we have been cast out of our routines and our usual escape routes. But it has also been an opportunity to gain some control. We may not have any idea what we want to be doing in the next five months, let alone the next five years, but at least we now know who we have been.
By Joy Lo Dico © 2020 The Financial Times