The Future Is Not Real. Still, We’re Worried Sick About It

In a letter to his dear friend Lucilius, Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote: “There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Chronic worriers tend to be more occupied by the future than by present circumstances. During the day, and even during the night, their thoughts wander in the mysterious realm of what’s yet to come, plotting, planning, and calculating on how to tackle an unfortunate fate that might rear its ugly head. But even though they wish to control the future, they’ve never gone beyond the confines of the present. This is because the future doesn’t exist, except in our minds.

We can’t live in the future, and we can’t predict it. Sure, we can plan for things that might come, but the present usually unfolds in different and often surprising ways. Still, many of us fix our attention on the unknown and fantasize endlessly about how things that we can’t possibly predict will present themselves to us. Seneca observed this phenomenon in his friend Lucilius as well as in the people around him. He counterattacked this often tiresome and destructive stance towards the illusory domain of the future with Stoic reasoning, explaining why worrying about it is pointless, and advising us on what to do instead.

Groundless fears

The idea that the future doesn’t exist doesn’t deny the passing of time. It doesn’t deny that what’s happening right now will soon be the past and that we’re constantly exposed to a stream of novelty like a mountain top faces an enduring blizzard. The blizzard cannot be controlled, comes from all directions and at different speeds, and brings along snowflakes in all shapes and sizes. The mountain is unable to predict what’s coming; it can only endure, and watch the snowflakes come and go, as we watch moments come and go, from (what we call) the future to the past.

Thus, we know that something is coming, but no matter what we try to make of it, and how well we try to prepare for it; we’ll always be shooting in the dark. That’s why the future as we imagine it has no ground to stand on at the end of the day; as the future is nothing more than ideas, which vary from wild guesses to prognoses based on past results. Nevertheless, many people are over-encumbered by these ideas, causing them to suffer from groundless fears based on nothing but speculation instead of truth. As Seneca stated:

For truth has its own definite boundaries, but that which arises from uncertainty is delivered over to guesswork and the irresponsible license of a frightened mind.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, 13.9

He observed that some things affect us before they appear, and other things affect us when they, in reality, never will. According to Seneca, this is the case because we’re habitually “exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” Seneca’s letter goes on to describe the nature of the mind, telling Lucilius that it sometimes creates false shapes of evil, when there’s no evil to be found. Or as he states:

It twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry.”

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, 13.12

This human habit of worrying isn’t just unpleasant. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that suggests that worrying can make people sick. Literally. This means that even though the future doesn’t exist, we’re worrying ourselves sick because of it. Luckily, Seneca’s writings provide us with antidotes.

Are your sufferings real or imaginary?

Now, what antidotes did Seneca propose to fight this human habit of worrying? His remedy comes down to fortifying the mind with certain ideas and truth about reality, as well as changing the stance we take towards fortune and misfortune. 

First of all, he reminds his friend Lucilius of the fact that although many unfortunate things have overcome him, he always stood his ground. So, it seems that, somehow, he was always able to cope. When we look at the history of our own lives, we may conclude that what we perceive as a catastrophe in advance, usually turns out to be different than we had imagined; oftentimes, we suffer less than we anticipate. The irony is that the majority of the suffering happens before the actual event takes place.

For example, we’re anxious about taking an exam, and the weeks before we worry about it every day: “Will I blackout? Will I screw it up?” But the anxiety we experience during the exam is negligible compared to what we endured the weeks before. The root of this fear lies in our beliefs regarding the consequences of failing the exam. We might think: “If I fail, my life is over.” Or: “If I don’t pass this exam, then it’s true what they say: I’m indeed a failure.”

But these beliefs aren’t true, simply because the consequences they anticipate haven’t happened yet, and cannot be predicted. Even though some catastrophic beliefs about the future may be plausible; as long as they’re not coming to fruition at this very moment, what’s to be disturbed about? Or as Seneca stated:

You may retort with the question: “How am I to know whether my sufferings are real or imaginary?” Here is the rule for such matters: We are tormented either by things present, or by things to come, or by both. As to things present, the decision is easy. Suppose that your person enjoys freedom and health and that you do not suffer from any external injury. As to what may happen to it in the future, we shall see later on. To-day there is nothing wrong with it.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, 13.7

In the same letter, Seneca encourages his friend Lucilius to be careful about outside influences when it comes to his personal situation. According to Seneca, it’s better to trust in ourselves and take counsel with our feelings independently, as we know our affairs better than anyone else does. We’re easily affected by the opinions and views of other people.

There are many individuals out there with narrow-minded and even delusional views of reality, claiming that they can predict the future, and gladly plant their seeds of fear in our minds, making us uneasy about the situation we’re in. Seneca urges his friend to consult reason to see if he doesn’t convert (quote-unquote) “what is not an evil into what is an evil.” So, the antidote is that we carefully discern between imagination and reality: as soon as we find out that our fears are based on irrational thinking, or fantasies, or exaggerations, our worries are debunked.

Even bad fortune is fickle

Another antidote that Seneca proposes is a change of attitude towards the things to come. Seneca displays a certain open-mindedness in his letter to Lucilius, urging him not to conclude too hastily regarding the nature of what Fortune provides. Fortune, in this case, refers to the ancient deity Fortuna: the goddess of chance, luck, and fate.

Looking at our human ignorance not only about what will happen, and how these events will play out but also concerning the nature of these events, and how they exactly affect our lives, it’s better to be careful when judging fate. In some cases, the ‘misfortune’ we anticipate indeed comes to fruition. However, events sometimes take such a radical and unexpected turn that, against all odds, we’re getting off the hook.

We can see this happening in a Buddhist story about a man who’s followed by a tiger, jumps into an old well, and encounters a snake at the bottom. He holds on tightly to a root poking out of the wall, which is getting eaten away by mice. His fate seemed to be sealed, but then, out of the blue, Fortune grants him a way out.

Therefore, hardship can fall upon us at any given time, but so can a stroke of luck in horrible circumstances. “Even bad fortune is fickle,” Seneca stated. So, his antidote is to stay open-minded about the future, knowing that we can’t judge the nature of an event before it has happened, and its consequences lay bare. I quote:

Let us, then, look carefully into the matter. It is likely that some troubles will befall us, but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, 13.10

This doesn’t mean that we should deny that bad things might happen. Seneca doesn’t encourage his friend to be ignorant of the terrible fates that could occur. He does advocate for observing with care. On the one end, it’s unwise to be in denial of misfortune. On the other end, we shouldn’t let the smallest sign of adversity throw us into a panic. So, the key is walking the middle path between ignorance and obsession, on which we mindfully assess the situation at hand, while keeping all options open.

Moreover, if we keep an open mind about the nature of events, knowing that not everything is what it seems and that fate is capricious like a winter storm, we’ll realize that our judgments about future and even present events are often misguided, and our fears concerning them groundless. And even if it’s certain that misfortune is coming our way; if it’s not yet arrived, then why spend the time beforehand suffering in our imagination?