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Weekly Commentary - JaNUARY 20, 2020

We can’t escape the past, but we can still see the future

When we look at the starry sky, which caused so much admiration to Kant, we don’t see its present but its past and, in some cases, even if we don’t know it, we contemplate a distant past, billions of years ago. Even that the sun we "see" is already eight minutes in the past and the moon we see is the moon that existed a minute ago.

And if we are sitting at a table for a family dinner or maybe to share a coffee with a friend, that person we see is the person who existed in the past and, albeit a past that happened just a fraction of a millisecond ago. But it already happened, because our senses need time to process sensory stimuli.

So, be it because light takes time to reach us or because our senses do not acquire the information instantly, what comes to us and to our brain has already passed. We live, then, locked in a constant perception of the past.

It could be said that we call it “the present” or, better said, what we consider the "now" is only a memory, an interpretation of the past that still remains in our consciousness, in our mind, because the information or the stimulus that caused that memory or that interpretation has just happened and we are still processing it.

In other words, as Augustine already said (better than I can say it now), memories of the past are actually memories of the present. The past, therefore, is one of the forms of the present. If the past were totally past, then we would not have any access to it.

So, from a physical and biological perspective, the past in the present is all we have. What we know, what we think we know, what we simply believe, what we remember and what we have forgotten, all that is a product of the past or better yet, of the past that we now remember in the present.

But, as Augustine suggested, if we have memories of the past, we must also have memories of the future. That is, although everything we perceive, from the furthest star to the nearest person, is in the past, that doesn’t mean we can’t “see” the future.

The future didn’t always exist. The cyclical time in which our ancestors lived, moved and existed until not long ago didn’t leave room for the future because everything moved within a cycle of repetitions.

The future is only possible if time is freed from the return of the same. But we, instead of liberating time and creating a future, have enslaved time to mechanical time (Chronos). We can’t remember the future because what we call "future" is not. We deceive ourselves by saying that we don't know something that it really isn't.

How do we see the future? Not with our five senses or with an emphatically closed mind. Maybe, then, you have to open your mind and activate a new sense.

Can we still keep our dialogue with ourselves in the age of social networks?

It has been known for decades that intelligence is not one, but that there are different types of intelligence and one of the most interesting is intrapersonal intelligence, that internal dialogue that everyone has with himself/herself and that, well practiced, takes us away from self-deception. But is it possible to dialogue with oneself in the age of social networks?

My argument is, first, that social networks represent the externalization of our thoughts and that, for that reason, what used to be an internal and exclusively internal dialogue (often even secret), it has now been outsourced, thus negatively impacting our intrapersonal intelligence.

In addition, this externalization of our internal dialogue has another effect, that of seeking reactions (“Likes”). So strong is that desire that, if we publish something on social networks and get no response, we believe that the whole universe and everything in it have forgotten us.

And so strong is that desire that we immediately unfriend he/she who publishes something we don’t like. Or we try to manipulate others to share what we publish through expressions such as “I am sure you will not share it because… " or "Let's make this viral image," or similar expressions.

In short, not only we don’t think about ourselves within ourselves, but that “outsourced” dialogue is based strictly on calculations designed to see how much “followers” we can get, how “influencers” we become, and how we can monetize the influence we have on our followers.

Therefore, my argument is, secondly, that the externalization of internal thoughts in social networks makes the internal dialogue disappear or it reduces it to Machiavellian calculations based on the activities of our reptilian brain (so to speak), far removed from any self-discovery.

But what is that internal dialogue of oneself with oneself, that intrapersonal intelligence? Among the best examples we can cite are, how could it be otherwise, two of Jorge Luis Borges's short stories: "Borges y yo" (when Borges, the writer, says he is not the writer) and "El otro" (when Borges, now old, meets his younger self.)

In either case, Borges is fully aware that he is talking to himself, but he doesn’t fall into the error and illusion of holding on to that dialogue with himself as if there were more than just the dialogue (or, perhaps better, that the memory of the dialogue). Without intrapersonal intelligence, we are just a thought away from self-deception. 

Every attempt to say something more about how Borges exemplifies, embodies, and transcends to be himself and the other at the same time in a continuous and coherent dialogue exceeds, by far, the very narrow limits of this column. But one thing is certain: when Borges, already old, meets the young Borges, he doesn't need a social network to remind him of his past.

Without internal dialogue, without intrapersonal intelligence, there can be no self-consciousness and, therefore, there is no mindfulness. As a result, all other types of intelligence disappear or shrink. Without internal dialogue, we inevitably become zombies.

Sometimes an unexpected void forms that we cannot fill

During the recent holiday season, I received a puzzle as a gift. It is not one of my favorite activities because putting together a puzzle requires patience, which, in turn, is not one of the highest points of my character. But the festive occasion and the collaboration of the family led me to participate in the attempt to solve the 1000-piece puzzle in just two days.

And, responding to the challenge, two days later 999 of those pieces were in their right place. What happened to the missing piece, the easiest to find because of its multiple colors? It just wasn't there. And it's not that we lost it carelessly. My impression is that it was never part of the original package.

Therefore, my exercise of patience and deduction, and the family exercise of working together to complete the puzzle, only had partial effectiveness. We lacked 0.001 percent to reach the total goal. But we didn’t reach it. And the empty place in the puzzle was more prominent than all the other 999 pieces together.

Despite our high level of completion of the task and our dedication to that task, a feeling of frustration gripped us because we could not put the last piece in its place and thus complete the whole picture of the puzzle.

Obviously, the good moment of the holidays and the good company made the frustration disappear immediately and the missing piece became a funny and ephemeral anecdote. But I couldn't get that experience out of my mind. In fact, I wonder if life itself is like an eternally incomplete puzzle.

Let's think about this in this way: day after day, with all our actions and thoughts, we add new pieces to the puzzle of our life. As we do not have a finished model guiding us, we trust that the “pieces” (family, children, work, studies, occupations) are accommodated in their corresponding place. And we live our lives based on that belief.

But what would happen if, at the end of our life, when we know that we have few pieces left to complete the puzzle, we find out that we are missing an important piece, the last one? In other words, what would happen to us if we discover that our life will be eternally incomplete?

When I was trying to complete the puzzle and I was not able to do it, I wondered why I didn't detect the problem earlier. I could have counted the pieces beforehand and, if one were missing, the game would change from solving the puzzle to finding which piece was missing. 

But in life we cannot count our pieces beforehand and, therefore, we do not know if we are missing any. Maybe it's an advantage not to know. Perhaps, if we knew, we would decide not to try to solve the puzzle of life.

Be that as it may, an unexpected void where obviously there should be something is frustrating. But the future likes to hide behind our frustrations.

Be careful when crossing the threshold of the New Year!

If we could stop seeing ancient Greeks and Romans myths as if they were baseless legends and we could see them for what they really were, that is, narrations of psychological reflections on important moments of life, we would then see that these stories have much to teach us about the beginning of a new year.

In fact, the name of the first month of the year, "January," comes from the name of one of the Roman gods, Janus, the only god with two faces, one looking to the past and another looking to the future. The teaching is clear: you cannot look to the future without looking simultaneously at the past, and vice versa.

Moreover, as someone well said (I don't remember who), what we have now was not received from our parents (that is, the past) but we have it as a loan from our children (the future).

In other words, against everything we are taught, the past never remains in the past, but is reinvented in the present. Therefore, the idea of "leaving the past in the past" or "forgetting the past" is equivalent, if fully implemented, to forget about the future, something that, incidentally, is what many people do.

If Janus teaches us something, it is that, in the passage from one moment to another of our lives, especially when that moment is shared socially, we must look simultaneously in both directions, but not because the future is continuity of the past, but precisely because the future is no longer continuity of the past.

If we only look to the past, there is no future, or we enter the future walking backwards. If we only look to the future, we will lack identity.

But there is another god, Mercury (Hermes, among the Greeks), known for being the messenger of the gods. At the same time, Mercury is also known for manifesting (although not as himself) in moments of transition, be it a physical (passing through a door) or temporal (beginning of the year) transition. And those are the moments that Mercury uses to deceive us.

I must correct myself: Mercury doesn’t deceive us. He does something even more worrisome: he creates the space for us to deceive ourselves. And once we deceive ourselves (that is, we betray ourselves), we not only cease to be who we should be, but we rationalize and justify our decision.

Therefore, at the end of each year we promise that we will stop doing many things and that in the new year we will achieve what we have not achieved the previous year. But it is only a self-deception, as evidenced by the messages on social networks "declaring" abundance and prosperity, posted by those persons who a year ago "declared" the same things and still didn’t succeed.

In a way, even if we don't recognize it, Janus and Mercury are still as active as they always were. After all, they are expressions of our psychology every time we cross a threshold.

When we suppress humor, our world becomes one-dimensional

One of the basic elements of every humorous story, or joke, is to direct the story in a certain direction and then, using the multiple meanings of a word, suddenly change the story in another direction. That unexpected change is what causes laughter (at least in some cases).

One of the most common examples of that kind of humor is the well-known phrase "You can't make jokes to kleptomaniacs because they take everything literally."

In this case, there are two possible meanings of “literally”. First, that the joke is interpreted literally and, therefore, not understood. And second, that “literally” is part of the description of “take everything”, in the sense of "stealing", that is, the definition of "kleptomaniac". (Obviously, there is nothing worse than trying to explain a joke, as we tried to do it here).

In other words, the variety and multiplicity of meanings of the words is the basis of humor. Without that ambiguity, without that ambivalence, there would be no joke possible because the story would not have a change of direction and rather it would resemble a mathematical operation where, although the result is not initially known, it is never unexpected.

Humor is, then, the possibility that things are not what they seem to be, that there is a different interpretation of reality, that the narration that seems to say one thing is actually saying another, and, ultimately, that due to ambiguity (and in many cases indeterminacy), the present is not an anticipation of the future.

When ambivalence is suppressed, when ambiguity is considered intolerable, when language becomes forcefully univocal, humor disappears. And when humor disappears, the multidimensionality of life also disappears.

The subject is obviously not new. Maybe that's why the book that Aristotle wrote about comedy about 2300 years ago has been lost. Perhaps that is why Jesus does not laugh in any of the canonical gospels. And maybe that's why humor has degraded into mockery or imitation or, even worse, it is considered as an insult or as something in bad taste.

In short, it could be said that humor is something like a dialogue between two people where both persons (although for different reasons) are willing to open their minds and hearts to a multiplicity of interpretations of reality.

Maybe that's why humor has a therapeutic effect, because it takes us away from what it is and leads them to what can be, to the alternative, to the unexpected, to the already present but still hidden. Maybe that's why it is suppressed, because suppressing humor is controlling people's minds and emotions.

As British philosopher and humanist Thomas More once said (I am paraphrasing here), Blessed are those who learn how to laugh at themselves, because they will never stop laughing. 

Therefore, humor itself, well understood, is uncontrollable and arises spontaneously. At the end of a long presentation I asked the participants: What are you taking home today? A young woman immediately told me, literally: "Professor, why do you teach us to steal?".

By projecting our inaction to the world, we contribute to the reduction of the world

I recently learned, while reading a book written by James Mallon, that the consequence of inaction is not just to allow a problem to get worse or an adverse situation to get out of control. The consequence goes beyond the loss of goods, money, opportunities or health. The worst consequence of inaction is something much deeper.

According to Mallon (and we agree), the consequence of inaction is accepting the external world as it is and, at the same time, separating our inner reality from that outer reality. In other words, when we project our impotence to the world, we contribute to making the shared world in which we live smaller and, in fact, more chaotic.

But, if we are honest with ourselves (a rarity in our times), we must admit that all of us project our internal conflicts in the outside world, assuming that the problem is "out there" and not within us and, on that basis, we decide to do nothing, believing that there is nothing we can do. 

Let me share a couple of examples to illustrate this situation.

A few days ago, a person told me that two young children he knows found a photograph, clearly already ruined, on the floor outside their school.

For fun, they drew mustaches and lines on the face of the man who appeared in the picture, a man they didn't recognize. And then, to increase the fun, they left the photograph in a tree away from school, but visible to other students.

The next day, upon returning to their classroom, both children were brought before the school principal, whom they had to listen to for long minutes while the principal accused them of having disrespected a former teacher of the establishment. For that lack of respect, the children were sanctioned.

Obviously, the children knew nothing about the former teacher. They only found an old and abandoned photograph. And, clearly, the problem with the former teacher was in the mind of the director of the school, who projected his problems to the children. The director's inability to act according to the situation, that is, his inaction, increased the negativity of the situation.

And I personally know the case of an 11-year-old girl at a school near Denver who was arrested by police officers, handcuffed and taken to a patrol car after a teacher called the police to report the girl for "destruction" of an object inside the school.

The only thing the girl had done was to put her hand on the teacher's desk and, in doing so, break a chocolate bar that the teacher had there. Again, the inability of the teacher to act appropriately led her to project her problems and her helplessness over a clearly innocent girl.

The examples could be multiplied, but it’s not necessary. It is clear that our inability to detach from our own internal inability leads us to project a chaotic inaction towards the world, fostering negativity instead of a future of co-creation and coevolution.

The uncertainty of the future used as an excuse to ignore the future

Quite often, when I talk about the future, someone says that, because the future does not exist, we should not worry about the future, thus using our total lack of certainty about the future as an excuse to ignore and even disregard that future. However, it is increasingly clear that the future is the only thing that truly exists.

Those who affirm that attention should only be paid to the present because the past is no longer and the future is not yet (that is, neither one nor the other exist) asks us to hold on to an ephemeral transition, always in motion, to which we allocate some type of entity even though it only serves as a bridge between two (supposedly) non-existent elements. 

And those who, with greater care, remind us that we should not confuse the present with the now, since the now includes a psychological dimension and, therefore, consciousness, even so, they do not explain how focusing on the now results more beneficial than creating (or, better yet, co-creating) a future.

One could say that the two main reasons to hold on to the present are the desire for nothing to change (as generally desire those to whom life constantly smiles) or the fatalistic belief that, even if everything is going wrong, nothing will change because neither ourselves nor someone else can generate any change.

But neither the repetition of the present ad infinitum nor the perpetuation of the past is possible or advisable at a time of profound, unthinkable, unforeseen, global, and irreversible changes. In fact, those who fill their entire present with their past leave no room for the future and, therefore, live in smaller and smaller worlds.

Therefore, it could be said that those who say that the future cannot be known say it because they are locked in the present or, worse, they were enslaved by the past. Without knowing it and without having reflected on the subject, they generalize their limitations and use that generalization as the basis for disregarding their future.

What they say does not exist (the future) is what could "save" them (to put it in some way), and not for some kind of technological advancement or scientific discovery, but for the future itself, precisely because, being undetermined, it generates an existential uneasiness that, well understood, shakes us, removes us from our confinement and, if we are allowed to say it, makes us transcendental by forcing us outside ourselves.

But there is a serious problem: the future is incompatible with narcissism. Narcissus (the one from the famous myth) just wanted to see his undistorted image and he was so attached to his self-image that he preferred death before seeing a different image of himself. But, the myth says, not even death was liberating for him. 

In fact, more existential bravery and personal maturity are needed to open the mind, heart and will to the future, to ambiguity, to indeterminacy than the forces necessary to (supposedly) perpetuate the narcissistic past. 

The inability to dialogue ruins the present and destroys the future

For reasons related of my work, recently I had to go to the bank where I have the accounts of my business to get a certification indicating that the accounts of my business are really mine. In the past, that simple procedure was completed in a few minutes. But this time, things were very different.

I explained my request to the bank representative and his response was: “If you need the direct deposit form, you have to request it from the other company. We do not have it.”

I told the representative that I never, at any time, mentioned anything about any direct deposit form. And I asked again for a document certifying that my business account in that bank was mine.

The representative then told me that they do not give advice on job applications and that there are many places where they can help me find a job. I told him then that I was not looking for a job and that all I wanted was a certification of my account in that bank.

His next answer was that to pay state taxes I had to contact the state tax office. I mentioned that I didn't say anything about state taxes and that my request was simple: I need to verify that my account is mine. Nothing else. I then gave him my ID asked him to use his computer to see my account.

To facilitate the process, I also gave him my business credit card (issued by that bank) and my business account check that I opened there more than two decades ago. The representative began searching and searching. And then he called someone telling the other person on the phone that I was asking for information from an account he couldn't find. 

I interrupted him and, firmly reflecting my discomfort, I indicated that I had not requested any information from any account, much less from my own account, because I already have that information. And once again I explained that all I wanted was a certificate issued by the bank indicating that my account was mine, as that same bank had already done before.

A ridiculous smile and an aggravating silence dispelled any doubt about the inability of that person to maintain a fairly reasonable and intelligent dialogue. And, incidentally, it was no use talking to the assistant manager, the manager or the regional manager of the bank. They all provided unacceptable excuses and, at the end, did absolutely nothing. 

The inability to dialogue, the aggressive ignorance, the constant prejudice that leads to assume that whoever asks a question is ignorant (instead of admitting our own ignorance and learning in the process) not only prevents any dialogue, but it also corrodes and destroys, with its ridiculous smiles, all vestiges of civilization and humanity. 

When a common point for meeting and understanding disappears, when we only listen to ourselves and we no longer listen to logos (as Heraclitus asked), little, if anything, is left of being human.

Our closed minds reduce our world to a very small world

I recently met a young man who shared with me his serious personal problems, perhaps only to have someone listening to him because at no time he asked for help. During his monologue, he said that "What happens to me must be normal because it happens to all the men I know."

The young man explained that his father and his uncles had similar problems (conflictive relationships, job instability, addictions), as his grandfather had had them before and as his co-workers and his friends do. Therefore, he thought that "if the same thing happens to them" these problems are "normal" and, in fact, are not problems at all.

The issue is that his many undeniably self-destructive behaviors are affecting him, his close family, and his extended family. But in the world in which this young man lives ("world" in the sense of interpersonal connections and shared and accepted ideas and beliefs), these self-destructive behaviors are so prevalent that they are seen as "normal."

This poor person is trapped inside his own world (literally). He not only rationalized his situation by justifying it in the oldest possible way ("Everyone does the same"), but he was unable to see the limits of his world and, therefore, to imagine beneficial alternatives for him and his family beyond that small world.

But let's be honest: we are all locked inside our small worlds. "It’s a small world after all " endlessly repeats one of the rides at Disney World. And, thanks to social networks and the omnipresence of smartphones, that “world” is getting smaller and smaller.

We accept as "normal" something we see every day simply because we see it every day, ignoring the historical, cultural, social, political, and ideological origins of that "normality."

And although that "normality" is as self-destructive to the life of the planet as the addiction that destroys every day the life of the young man mentioned above, we accept our global destructive behavior as "normal."

In fact, we thus normalize violence, injustice, exploitation and ignorance and then we give them "acceptable" names, such as "law and order", "justice", "work," and "education". Because that is the world we live in; we believe that it is normal and that there are no alternatives.

If the man with whom I spoke doesn’t change his behavior, in a short time he will lose everything, even perhaps his life. However, if he changes his behavior (with the professional help needed and in support of those who want to help him), he will probably save his life and his future.

On a global level, if we continue to do what we are doing, planetary ecocide will be a reality. And if we change our behavior (with the help of the great minds and hearts who want to help us), even so, there are no guarantees that we can save our future.

The Universe may benefit from the disappearance of our self-destructive and immature humanity. But the Universe could also benefit from a truly human humanity.

“I don’t have time for the future”

During a recent informal meeting with a business expert, in the context of a conversation about new community projects, this person told me "I don't have time for the future". And, with a kind smile and body expression, he ended the conversation.

The expression “I don't have time for the future” took me by surprise, because (without assuming for a moment I know what that means) it gave me the impression that the person who said it did not understand what he was really saying.

For example, is it really possible to "have" time in the same way that you “have” a car, or a house, or money in the bank? Certainly not, since time is not a “thing” we "control" or accumulate (unfortunately for us) as we do with strictly material elements designed for consumption or to facilitate consumption.

In addition, "not having time" generally means a life so busy (though not necessarily successful or happy) that it no longer leaves room for anything else, even for the future. But the paradox is that the future is where we will spend the rest of our life, regardless of the duration of that life.

Was this person saying he didn't have time for his own future life? He might not admit it, but that is what I thought was hiding behind his expression.

But if you don't have time for the future, why do you have time for? The only options are the past or the present. But the past already happened and, for that reason, it no longer exists, or it only exists as a memory. So, the only way to devote time to the past is to remember it or, in the worst case, trying to revive it or recreate it in the present.

Is the present then what fills our time so much that it leaves us no time for the future? But the present is a fleeting moment that immediately becomes the past. So how can we give time to something that as soon as we look at it ceases to be what it is?

Obviously, I do not think that the person with whom I spoke thought about having a philosophical debate about the essence of time or about the impact of temporality on humans (if one can really talk about "impact").

I think, however, that person was looking to express something more pragmatic: his future has no place for something other than the future that this person already had in mind. And that "future," which could best be described as a "perpetual continuity of the past," was then closed to any other alternative.

In short, "not having time for the future" seems to mean something like "being so caught up in everyday life that we see everything as 'things' and that we no longer see anything transcendental." If so, what we are saying is that we forget that humans, precisely because we are human, are possibility, project.

To be human is to be future.

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