Dear future, here’s the one lesson I want to pass on to you

By Jenny Odell

Bahala na is often translated as a leap of faith, but to me, it is a leap of faith into present circumstances, not away from them.Credit:Istock

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I am writing to you from a moment when it was very hard for some of us to think about the future. I know that doing so has always been a challenge, but in my time, there was a felt certainty about the decline of the human-habitable world that had become especially pervasive. From this view, the future felt less like a distant horizon and more like the oncoming edge of a towering waterfall.

If things have improved between my lifetime and yours, perhaps you look back and see humanity gradually coming to its senses, correcting our ways. That is not how it felt for us, right now, when we had all the information but hadn’t acted radically enough. At the time of writing, despite everything we already knew, fossil fuel companies were still opening up new oil and gas fields. New coal plants were being approved. Year after year, we watched species disappear, landscapes rendered unrecognisable, seasons happening out of joint, communities poisoned with chemicals.

We watched heads of companies make hundreds of times as much as their employees, who sold their lives for a pittance and barely had time to sleep. They made things that no one needed, or products with something called “planned obsolescence,” out of parts that never went away. People were rewarded for exploiting other people and the rest of the living world, or for developing abstract financial instruments that produced no real value, while life-sustaining work was paid little or not at all. Housing was used for investment, which meant that an empty house could be worth more than one that sheltered someone. So much of what happened made no sense except for on a corporate ledger, and the benefactors were fewer and fewer, richer and richer.

Author Jenny Odell.

Ours was also a time of amnesia. Inattentive to the struggles of the past, some felt orphaned in a set of circumstances that seemed unprecedented, surreal, and insurmountable. Decline became a common enough flavor in Western first-world culture for us to joke about it – like the headline from the satire website Reductress: “Woman Waiting for Evidence that World Will Still Exist in 2050 Before She Starts Working Toward Goals.” If you said that the world was falling apart, you might be met either with denial or with a shrug that masked an unspeakable emotion. And one reaction to that emotion was to simply close down: heartbroken by the damage we had already done, and anxious about that still to come, some of us resigned ourselves to huddle close, take care of our friends, and live out our lives in the shadow of disaster. If future prosperity was impossible, at least we might find it in the present. That was never an adequate answer, of course. But despite the demoralising feeling of tending one’s garden while forests burned unseasonably and deserts expanded, it was a psychological stopgap that could all too easily become a home.

Others also saw the future as a foregone conclusion, but in a very different way. Instead of taking decline for granted, they espoused a view of history as an upward progression, where increases in technology and a certain type of knowledge – increases that were conflated with wisdom — would inevitably carry us past the challenges we faced. This too betrayed a certain amnesia. Technocratic proposals for addressing climate change involved new tools but remained mired in a centuries-old attitude born of colonialism and capitalism: that of seeing the nonhuman world as inert, exploitable material. Ironically, it was the very attitude that had gotten us here in the first place. I have to believe that if you are anywhere near flourishing, you must have discovered – no, remembered – a different kind of way of relating to your world. But in my time, there were many who believed we would eventually control the weather through brute force, and perhaps even colonise space. They subscribed to something like Manifest Destiny, and any other view they denigrated as primitive, a thing permanently of the past, and a stumbling block to progress.

Jenny Odell’s two bestselling books.

Different as it sounds, this kind of triumphalism had something in common with paralysed heartbreak. One rested in arrogant assurance, while the other rested in despair. Both saw the future as something offstage, rather than as the thing we were always creating in every moment, whether we acknowledged it or not. And both forgot that essential truth about history, which I, as someone from your past, am here to remind you: at no point in history was anything given. Everything we had now that was beautiful had been struggled for, just as much of what you have that is beautiful is what we will need to struggle for. Ages of wisdom have hung in the balance before and could hang there again. Zoom far enough into any moment of the past and all you will find is contingency and doubt.

This is, after all, what you and I have in common: we each live in a present, a space for action. I no longer see you as an arrival point, far away from us on a line, or over the side of a waterfall. You, the future, are always imminent in my undecided present. We are at the center of time, and you, reading this, are also there. In both of our moments, we have so much to lose, but also so much to gain.

So I’ll use this letter to offer you the same thing I bring to my present moment, something from my own diaspora. An artist born in the Philippines recently taught me bahala na, a Tagalog phrase with precolonial origins. When I asked my mother, who was also born there, what it meant, she translated it as “whatever happens, happens.” That may sound resigned or passive, and indeed, an American psychologist argued in the 1960s that the attitude described by bahala na had similarities with American fatalism. But when the Filipino psychologist Alfredo Lagmay interviewed people around Manila about its usage, a more interesting picture emerged. What he found was a “positive, functional response to uncertainty,” something that meant meeting the present with everything you had at your disposal, a sharp-eyed sallying forth even when you didn’t feel totally prepared or in control. It was a form of acceptance that was actually the opposite of giving up because acceptance was the beginning of observation and response. Lagmay traced the phrase to the improvisational spirit of Filipino culture, something that reflected the experience of living amid volcanoes and typhoons, close to the vicissitudes of the Earth. I have seen bahala na translated as a leap of faith, but to me, it is a leap of faith into present circumstances, not away from them.

So when my mum says, “whatever happens, happens,” what I hear is not resignation but a mix of humility, trust, and curiosity.

I was struck by how different this sounded from the other attitudes toward time I’ve described. Both declinism — the belief that the past was better and the future will be worse, and blind optimism — the belief that the past was worse and the future is inevitably better — absolve us of our responsibility to act now, in this gap between the past and future. In contrast, the improvisational spirit lives inside that gap, and it can be surprisingly full of ingenuity and joy even when the situation is dire. As something we share with our nonhuman brethren, the capacity to form new responses is how you know you’re alive, today, here. So when my mum says, “whatever happens, happens,” what I hear is not resignation but a mix of humility, trust, and curiosity. And I think it’s like this — through love of the present, and of ourselves in it — that we actually win the future.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, someone speaking to us from her own historical moment, wrote that we each inhabit a “non-time,” a gap between the past and the future that only exists if we can hold it open with our imagination. In contrast to foregone conclusions, the non-time is full of freshness and uncertainty, qualities that make it the domain of action. As she pointed out, this made it fundamentally impossible to pass down through the generations as advice. Instead, the gap of non-time could only be “indicated,” like an empty space: “Each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it anew.” It’s from inside that empty space that I write to you.

Even if I knew exactly what your time would be like, I still could not tell you what to do. I can’t even tell you what our experiences in the past should mean for you now. I can only indicate that our present was as real, as open and undetermined as it feels for you. And I can pass on the lesson that I take from everyone before me who deviated from the supposed timeline of history, who took a leap of faith, fought the odds, and remade the world in the process. They said it to me, and now I say it to you, right there at the center of all time: Bahala na!

Jenny Odell is the of Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond The Clock and How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

This is an extract of her Letter To Future which she will present at the Sydney Writers’ Festival event Storytelling Gala: Letters to The Future on Thursday, May 25. She will also appear at Resisting the Attention Economy on Wednesday, May 24 and Do Nothing and Saving Time on Sunday, May 28.

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