Sunday, January 14, 2018

Living In The Past

It isn't hard to understand why people want to live in the past.   The past is safe and comforting.  The future is scary and unknown.

I was thinking the other night - a dangerous preoccupation - that as human beings, we tend to obsess about the past, but rarely give much thought to the future.   Or more precisely, those of us who succeed in life think more about the future than the past, while those of us who don't succeed (or the depressed) tend to dwell on the past.

In Normal Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, he mentions this effect - the desire in all of us to re-live the past and wonder, "If only I had done things differently, how would my life be now?" kind of thing.   And he points out, there is no profit in it.

You can learn from the past and apply those lessons to the future, or you can wallow in misery and berate yourself for not having a crystal ball or time machine.   We are flawed beings, as humans, live with it and move on, and think about the future, not what could have been.

The future, of course, is scary and unknown.   Well, part of it is known for certain.   Eventually, this party we call life has to end, and you have to make the most of what you got left, rather than weeping over something you said to a friend in 7th grade that hurt their feelings (I am sure they are over it by now, by the way, and probably don't even remember you).   But that is human nature, to regret.

And it is how our brains are constructed.  We have lots of room for memory, but we don't have so much brain cells devoted to predicting the future.   Indeed, most folks can't predict what will happen when they sign a payday loan, even after you explain it to them.  "But I get all this money now!" they say, thinking of the lady with the fan of $20 bills on the sign.

My Dad, when he started down the road to dementia, told me that vivid memories from his childhood were flashing back in his mind.   "It is all so detailed!" he said, "Things I haven't remembered for decades are coming back to me!"   And that illustrates how the brain has a capacity to store a lot of data.  And no doubt, the neuons or synapses storing these memories flashed up on his internal screen in one last gasp of energy.  "We're going to erase this now, want to watch it one last time?"

Or course, our brains have no way to accurately predict the future as we are not clairvoyant (sorry, take that ESP bullshit elsewhere Mr. Geller!).   In fact, we are not very good at remembering the past even if we do it a lot.  We tend to filter and distort memories, often to make things come out in our favor.   That wasn't a pyramid scheme we invested in!  No, no!  And it would have worked if only my lousy brother-in-law was able to obtain top notch distributors of his own.   He screwed it all up for me!

That's the way we think.

The past is instructive if we learn from it, but in order to learn from it - and thus predict the future more accurately, we have to honestly confront our past.   If you want your car insurance rates to go down in the future, you have to first accurately remember the past.   You were speeding and driving recklessly - that is the reality, not "the asshole cop gave me a ticket just to make money for the County!"   So long as you believe the distorted view of the past, you will not change your behavior and alter the future.

And so on down the line.   If you want to predict the future to the best of your ability, you need to accurately view the past and your past actions and learn from them, figure out what went right and what went wrong and then apply these lessons to the data of today and extrapolate a result.  And in viewing the past, you not only have to view your own actions, but that of others - and be able to extrapolate as well.  The better you can do this, the better your predictions will be.  The more you delude yourself, the further off the mark your prognostications will end up.

Today, we have a whole generation who thinks that Hitler was merely misunderstood, that market bubbles simply don't exist, and that it is possible to vote everyone a raise, if we merely choose to do so.   And a whole lot of these folks actually believe that Oprah Winfrey would make a good President or that disgraced former Private Bradly Manning is qualified to be a Senator.

Talk about delusional thinking.   If you cannot perceive the past - or indeed even the present - how can we accurately predict the future?

And that in a nutshell is what worries me about the future.   People today think the market and the economy will expand forever, ignoring the warning signs of the present and the patterns of the past.