We are all used to planning our lives to a certain extent. Even the most chaotic of us like to know that there will be food on the table tomorrow. Planning is our relationship with future action. It is the way in which we participate in making sure that we have some continuity in our existence.
But does this mean that we should plan our whole life in advance? Is continuity necessarily a good thing for all time? I suggest no. And my reason is that it is a profoundly unnatural thing to do.
OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH TIME
From the moment a child is born, is starts three relationships with three separate things. The first is a relationship with the present; the second a relationship with the future; and the third a relationship with the past.
Our most immediate and easy relationship is with the present. A baby cries when it feels disturbed, and smiles (after a couple of months of life) when it feels like sharing happiness. Many people find playing with babies takes them out of their future worries and past memories, and into the baby’s moment-filled, very present world.
Our second relationship is with the future. A baby begins to learn patterns of anticipation, in which life does not always turn out the way the baby expects. Things appear and disappear suddenly. It takes a long time to get used to anticipating the future. This is partly evidenced in the way a baby will be fascinated by repeated games of hide-and-seek. Once could say the curious baby is putting themselves on a crash course in relating to the future.
Our third relationship is with the past. Eventually, we develop patterns of recognition and reflection, in which we learn to consult our memory data banks. These help us to know that people and things exist when we are not present with them. We can thus develop rich internal lives, full of conceptual play involving the people and things we have remembered.
WE NEED TO BE CURIOUS AND INTERESTED
I want to talk a little bit about that second relationship – our relationship with the future. A baby’s way of learning about the future, their primarly tool if you like, is their own curiosity. How else can you learn about possibility and probability, except by being fascinated, by being prepared to jump into an uncertain gap every time you see an opportunity?
This is a fundamental human skill, and was recognised as such by the poet Keats, who called it ‘negative capability’. Negative capability, as he saw it, is the ability to live in, and be enchanted by, an uncertain world, without grabbing for premature certainty.
As humans, we need this. Without it, our relationship with the future becomes dull and unappetising. Indeed, one of the characteristics of depression is the loss of colour in life, an increased dullness, in which life seems an interminable drag of things that can’t be changed.
WHY IT’S BEST NOT TO PLAN EVERYTHING
This brings me to why it may be best not to plan everything we do. In doing so, we are giving ourselves the false impression that we know tomorrow. We damage our own curiosity and interest, and can even take ourselves towards depression.
Furthermore, if we try to plan other people’s lives for them, we can do the same to them: damage their curiosity and interest, and shift them towards depression.
Beware the relationship partner, or boss, who prescribes a future for you. They are seeing no role for chance – and, more importantly, no role for your own ‘negative capability’ – your ability to live in uncertainty, and, in time, to make something beautiful out of it.