Befriending the Future

This piece looks at how we may open up the future as a potentially hopeful dimension for those to whom it feels unimaginable, unattractive, or destined to repeat the past. (It is long read, but may offer some insight into where we find ourselves, and how we can transform it.  I draw on three thinkers in particular: Christopher Bollas [a writer and psycholanalyst], James Hillman [a writer and Jungian analyst], and Thomas Hubl, a contemporary spiritual teacher who places a strong emphasis on attunement to our future capacities.


Many of us become anxious or evasive when we think of our own futures. We may struggle to formulate any sense of what lies ahead for us; we may resent any questions or thoughts about our future; we may envisage myriad ways in which our lives will not go well. Happy, enticing futures full of possibility and hope seem to belong to others; they are a foreign place to us. All of this has profound repercussions, for how our lives unfold, and for our happiness.

I write as someone who, for decades, sensed the future as an alien dimension. I did not naturally relate to it, and, when forced to think about it, I recoiled. It was a context I did not honestly expect to thrive in; I had no faith that any action or effort on my part could make my future happy.

I did not think any of this through, I simply lived it: my aversion was primitive, profound and unexamined. I learned to camouflage this dis-ease with an apparently ‘spiritual’ emphasis on presence.[1] I soothed myself by repeating a phrase I had heard from Thich Nhat Hanh: ‘the only way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment’. Though insightful, revelatory words: the present is all that we will ever have – this focus still neglected something: Unless we are exceptionally evolved, how we relate to the future matters, and I was rejecting it in problematic ways.

For those of us who think like this, life suffers: We cannot give our energy wholeheartedly to the things we treasure, and much of our potential remains unrealized. Our trajectories atrophy from neglect, our progress stalls; we find ourselves confined – as we had feared - to lives of repetition. If we are to develop the strength and capacity to engage differently, we need to become much more conscious about what we are doing to our futures, and to transform it. To support this shift, we will consider three themes:

  1. Why we may have formed – and continue to perpetuate –  a problematic sense of our own future[2];

  2. How we can develop an appreciation of calling which empowers us;

  3. How we can nourish our development in ways that will transform our futures.  [3]


1: Hostile futures; ‘A Past That Does Not Pass By’


Hey there mister, will you tell me what happened to the seeds I’ve sown,
Can you give me a reason sir, as to why they’ve never grown?
This Hard Land: Bruce Springsteen

We are generally hazy about why we avoid our future: we may notice that we do, but rarely pay why much attention. It is helpful to clarify this resistance. Many of us who turn from thoughts of the future do so because of how the past has been for us. Much of our energy seems required simply to endure our lives. We may feel limited, preoccupied or overwhelmed: we may fear that our future is irrevocably tarnished by our limitation. What exactly feels hard? Being who we are: grappling daily with the ongoing challenges of living through our moods, our patterns of anxiety and defeat, our perpetual sense of damage, compromise or burden, an instinct toward despair. All these conspire to draw our attention away from hope and possibility and toward – at best –survival. [4][5]


a person who feels fated may imagine futures

that carry the weight of despair…

Christopher Bollas


When our days feel like this, understandably we recoil from what lies ahead.[6] This is natural, almost loving: we feel defeated ahead of time, and want to protect ourselves from disappointment.  But our avoidance has a cost: it prevents us from relating to the future as a source of inspiration that could support us. This presents a problem. To ‘know’ that our futures will fail us is to be convinced that we will, of our own volition, wreck our lives - or that fate will do this for us. We need to challenge the beliefs and habits that have led there and find ways to befriend our own future as a place of possible happiness. [7]

Clearly, we need to find ways to envisage the future differently. We need to begin by recognising that the ‘future’ we imagine is only ever a mental projection, a series of images and glimpses of how our lives seem likely to unfold. It is important that we really take this in. When we avoid thinking about or planning for the future, we’re not rejecting our actual future, but our imagined future. That imagined future – when our minds are inclined to think along grim lines – is likely a bad-case scenario – and of course this darkens mood and depletes hope.

Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has explored a further layer of how this projection of the past occurs, and how it tarnishes our future. He outlines a process by which some of us are inclined imagine futures coloured by loss, distress and failure. He suggests that we do so because we unwittingly form our futures in the likeness of the most difficult states of our past.[8] So those of us who look to our future and see images of failure or disaster – may notice on closer examination that each of our possible (imaginary) futures – whether we choose to pursue X or Y or Z - feels the same, and that it’s atmospheric quality carries a flavour of dread, or loneliness, or some other core state that distills the very worst of our past.

We are, as Bollas puts it, not perceiving our future, but reproducing our past via ‘projected forms of grief and encapsulated states of pain.’  These images may be crazily destructive to us, yet are our best guess, from where we stand. What Bollas depicts is a largely unconscious mechanism whereby we convert the future into a place of (bad) repetition, and then flinch from it as a source of pain. When we do this, we sever a link with the future as a possible source of ‘good’. All this occurs casually, daily, unconsciously as a series of background processes we rarely perceive. And yet the process affects us deeply: we reject all thoughts of our future, and in doing so, abandon our actual futures to fate.

All interpretations belong to the horizon of possibilities that is the interpreter’s world


Our problem is not that we are incapable of being happy or fulfilled, but that we are incapable of believing we can be. And so just where our lives might benefit from our energy and commitment, we puncture hope. This process has enormous consequences. It expresses a total lack of trust in our capacity to create and shape our lives in ways that matter. [9][10] And, because we cannot give our lives our wholehearted care, we find, when we look, that yes indeed we are correct: bad patterns repeat, life does not much improve, something deep within us fails to come to fruition. [11]

As it stands, we cannot imagine the future ‘well’ because our bias leans us elsewhere. If what has occurred in the past still seems to haunt us, we can learn to tend to its impact more consciously and precisely, to identify how it lives in us now with more precision, curiosity and tenderness. This is a substantial undertaking, and requires that we find processes – of reflection, therapy, expression, catharsis, artistic transformation – through which we can acknowledge, and clarify the impacts of the past.  

Real New Futures

But we can also work directly on our relation to the future itself; we turn our attention now to envisaging our futures skillfully, creatively and well, in order that they reflect genuinely fresh possibilities.  We focus on two core ways to achieve this: refining our awareness of calling, and clarifying our capacity for transformation. Both have the power to give rise to futures richer than those we can currently imagine.  [12] 

from fate to destiny: perceiving calling


feeling doomed

“the fated person feels as he doesbecause the world has not responded

to him in a way that leaves him with hope”.[13]

Developing an appreciation of calling can form a powerful bridge between lives that feel dictated by fate, and those that feel enlivened by a sense of destiny[14]. By the time we reach adulthood, many of us are predisposed to feel doomed, impotent or hopeless. We sense that life is essentially un-transformable, that we are victims of forces beyond ourselves, that core elements of our potential are already lost.  We have our reasons for feeling like this: accumulated experiences of pain, disappointment, betrayal or defeat which have registered so relentlessly, or at such formative times that they have come to seem life-defining. But just because such experiences feel life-defining, does not mean that they are, or must continue to be.

More interesting and fulfilling versions of our lives lie within reach. Yet the possibility of realising them is hampered by our conviction that they will never come to pass. This affects us profoundly, weakening hope, and making us reluctant or unable to put our efforts behind the things we are passionate about, and which might make us happy.[15]  Fatalism negates our role in who we are and who we may come to be; it desperately requires a counter-balancing influence: destiny and calling.

Calling and Destiny


‘For that is what is lost in so many lives, and what must be recovered: a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive…there is a reason my unique person is here and that there are things I must attend to beyond the daily round and that give the daily round its reason….

James Hillman

To focus on calling is to re-imagine the forces we believe shape our lives. Calling rejects the assumption that we have been ‘formed’ by events in the past. Calling changes the narrative: offering an alternate force – a purposeful dynamism from within - that empowers us. It refers - in Aristotelian terms – not to our ‘formal’ cause ( define) but to our ‘final cause’ (the ‘that for the sake of which’ we are).  

Though the dimension of calling has been championed in many cultures, as James Hillman argues, it is largely absent from our contemporary western psychology, which leans heavily on the impact of our early environment. Calling, by contrast, is closely aligned to what the early Greeks called the daimon. In Plato’s original conception, the daimon was understood as a form of inner guidance that was – and this is crucial – personal to us. It is not about the purpose of life per se, but about the particular purpose of our lives. ‘Calling’ – is not a project of our aims or ego: it is an inner beckoning. For Plato, who viewed it as given by the gods, the daimon’s role was “to lift us from earth toward our celestial affinity, like a plant whose roots are not in the earth, but in the heavens".2  This captures how it actively realigns us: inviting us toward something currently beyond us, rather than pushing us from behind by what has already occurred.

In order to attune to what we may be called toward, we need to inquire into our lives from a different angle:  We discern calling when we listen to which moments feel significant to us; which tasks feel central to our purpose;  and to when we sense ourselves to be in alignment with something essential aboutwho we are.  We look back at our lives and find our attention falls on certain moments: a scene with a friend, a task or role that captured a kernel of our identity, lines from songs or poems, an object or tool that resonated with greater potency than other objects. As we tune into calling, we notice as we do that it alters how we relate to the past: we are now remembering it as a place of revelation rather than of impact: we are trying to find the kernel of ourselves, rather than of any offences committed against us. The moments we locate are not necessarily those in which we succeeded visibly or were recognized by others, they are often more interior, those that felt vividly alive to us, discoveries in which we stumbled upon something in ourselves that felt important:  [16]

As we begin to discern or clarify a thread of purpose – whether that is a desire to express beauty, protect those weaker than us, serve a particular project or community, develop a talent or area of expertise - we see that our calling is particular and requires our care. Because it is personal, we alone can ensure it is attended to. When we consider a calling worthy of attention (and ourselves worthy of what we feel called by), we are supported in significant ways: we are pried away from fate, offered a sense of purpose, and energized by our accountability for bringing our calling to life.  This emphasis invites us to be more than what has happening to us – it needs us to believe in our capacity to realize something fresh, and to bring forth the best of ourselves.

The notion of calling – and the value of identifying it – has close links with the more pragmatic Japanese concept of ikigai - or ‘reason for being.’  Ikigai asks us to identify the central point of balance between four different questions: What do I love? What does the world need? What will people pay me for? and What am I good at? For the Japanese, identifying one’s ‘reason for being’ is considered good both for a long-life, and a satisfying one. Where the deepest answers to these questions intersect, there lies the ikigai.

Whichever of these ways of seeing attract us, clarifying and remembering our central purpose(s) in being here encourages us to orient our lives around what matters most to us. This allows us to be called forward toward futures more aligned with our dreams than our wounds.  

The evolving, developing self: attunement to fresh futures


‘An aged man is but a paltry thing

A tattered coat upon a stick unless

Soul clap its hands and sing and wider sing

For every tatter in his mortal dress…’


WB Yeats, The Circus Animal’s Desertion


There is another channel through which we can access more hopeful, yet authentic, futures: recognition of our own capacity for transformation. When we trust that we are capable of developing in meaningful ways, we see that this development will alter how our lives unfold: Our futures will inevitably be shaped by who we become. This is significant: we – as we are now – cannot know how they will be.

But people stay ‘stuck’ and change in bad ways too, (our futures can diminish as well as expand - and they are not entirely in our hands…). How can we do what we can to enrich them? If we want to ensure that we evolve, that our maturity keeps pace with our potential, and that our futures reflect enhanced capacities, we need to actively support our own development. How we do so will vary. When we cultivate substantial things – through service, relationship, practice, craft, work - the ‘self’ that we are will invariably alter. This transformed self will live in a different world to the one we live in now: a world formed in response to its altered and expanded horizons. Subtle possibilities we cannot now see can open; shifts in satisfaction, tastes of joy, fresh, more spacious abilities, humilities, confidences.

Contemporary mystic Thomas Hubl refines and elaborates on this territory, in part by encouraging us to sense into our own ‘future’ and allow it to infiltrate us.  For Hubl this ‘future’ is not a domain of time so much as a space in which our capacities may ripen.  Hubl proposes that we have – in moments – already tasted our own ripening. Though not yet our default state, these ‘tastes’ are a trustworthy reminder of what we are capable of. When we attune to our own advanced capacity, we taste something fresh and often disorienting: Learning to absorb and embody these moments has an influence on us. Allowing ourselves to be ‘reached’ by our these less familiar self-states is to expose ourselves to the influence of the most evolved versions of ourselves and allow a genuine affinity with that state to infiltrate, nourish and alter us. It is not to ‘fake’ an experience that is not real or personal, but to re-member it. This is not about positive imagery, delusion or manipulation. [17] It is based on sensing into and supporting our own ability to develop in meaningful ways.

This dynamic, fluid element of our identity is something we often fail to take account of when we think about the future. We are inclined to think in static ways, as if we ourselves will stay the same, and life will unfold (badly or well) around us. Thinking this way ignores both the inevitability of change, and our transformative potential.  As we commit to things which will help us to realize our own potential, we ensure our future will be an expression of that commitment.  Inevitably, if we can grow and develop in significant ways, the parameters of our lives and experience will alter. This literally feeds the life that lies ahead for us, ensuring that our futures – and how we experience ourselves in them – will be more than mere repetition: more open, more creative, more unknowable.


Whatever age we are, we want our futures to be beautiful. We hope to be happy in them: to be comfortable, to be touched, to live with meaning and joy. We want to grow as we age, to be available to be transformed – positively – by experience, and to give the best of ourselves in ways that matter.

Yet for many, our current relation to the future limits our potential for happiness. We have identified three ways to counter this: Firstly, we need to see what we are carrying and projecting from the past (whether a mood of fatalistic hopefulness, or terror of pain or disaster) to identify this more explicitly, and, to the best of our ability, diffuse its’ momentum. Secondly, we can develop and deepen our relationship to calling, tuning in to the possibility that there is something we are meant to do while we are here, and that this matters. Thirdly, we can honour the truth of our fluidity, identify how it would be most valuable for us to develop, and engage our efforts there.

When we engage with these three levels, we cease to undermine our potential future happiness. Instead, we make space for the truth that our future is unknown, yet open to our influence. The truer we can be to the dimension of calling, and the more committed we can be to our own evolution and growth, the more we ensure that our futures not be encumbered by the worst of the past, but resonant with what is deepest, best and most creative in us.