In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives he chooses one and eliminates the others; in fiction of the almost inextricable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves proliferate and fork.*
(Jorge Luis Borges)
There are always choices. Viktor Frankl saw the truth of this when he declared our final freedom is to choose our response to what happens to us.
Seth Godin catches my eye with these opening words to his blog:
‘There is no market. There are markets.’**
He could be saying, There is no future. There are futures; something Jorge Luis Borges imagined in his story of all paths simultaneously existing.
Perhaps a single future is most often an easier shortcut from now to then, far easier than being open to many futures. There are many paths to recognise: your skills and abilities, your dreams and hopes and passions, your values, your stories of relationships and experiences, and more. The more these threads are noticed, the more futures become possible.
This will sound too messy for some. Tim Harford is writing about the people who tidy their desk and workplace and those who leave it messy:
‘That’s the thing about a messy desk, or a messy office, it’s full of clues about recent patterns of working, and those clues can help us work more effectively.’^
The interesting point he makes comes from some research showing tidy people tend to file prematurely and are often unable to find what they need in their vast systems of storage.
This sounds like the future and futures. The more we tidy away the clues, the more we lose sight of the paths and the choices and the possibilities. Out of sight is out of mind and heart and will, but as Ben and Ros Zander point out:
‘The action in a universe of possibility may be characterised as generative, or giving, in all senses of that word – producing new life, creating new ideas, consciously endowing with meaning, contributing, yielding to the power of contexts. The relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and the things themselves. Emotions that are related to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion, and compassion.’^^
Here we see forking paths that fork and fork again. Maybe to file early in this case would be to only see the people and things, rather than the messy relationships that may appear if everything is left out in some kind of explorative and creative mess?
I concluded my reading this morning with Jürgen Todenhöfer’s account of his journey into ISIS, where I find an extreme example of seeing only one future. Abu Loth, one of the fighters he met told him:
“All of life is just a test, and you need a clear set of instructions.”*^
A single future contains the danger of becoming narrower and narrower. Another fighter, Abu Qatadah, told Todenhöfer:
“A bad Muslim who lies, cheats, and kills, is preferable to Allah than a non-Muslim who does good all day long.”^*
I have come across similar thinking in the Christian Church and in non-religious contexts too. These are examples of what Otto Scharmer would call absencing, in which the future is pre-determined and those who believe otherwise will be ignored or worse.
There are, though, many right and beautiful futures waiting to be uncovered through our imagining and creating:
‘The craftsmanship of meaning amid the unfeeling laws of nature invariably calls on us to use human tools like ethics and art to answer questions of what is right and beautiful.’⁺
(*The character Stephen Albert in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths.)
(**From Seth Godin’s blog: The shortcut crowd.)
(^From Tim Harford’s Messy.)
(^^From Rosamund and Benjamin Zander’s The Art of Possibility.)
(*^Abu Loth, quoted in Jürgen Todenhöfer’s My Journey into the Heart of Terror.)
(^*Abu Qatadah, quoted in Jürgen Todenhöfer’s My Journey into the Heart of Terror.)
(⁺From Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Existential Therapy from the Universe.)