Dao Du Jour, Day 74: Ministry of the Future

Chapter 74:

“Trying to control the future

is like trying to take the master’s carpenter’s place.

When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,

chances are that you’ll cut yourself.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Stoicism and Daoism are often accused of fatalism: the Logos and the Dao are going to do what they’re going to do, and you’d best accept it rather than “push the river.” Go with the flow and like it! This offends our modern Pelagian sensibilities and, indeed, it is puzzling that Stoicism has become so trendy in contemporary self-help culture. If the lion’s share of self-help literature is based on so many versions of “the power of positive thinking” and the “law of attraction,” Stoicism might be cast as “the power of negative thinking,” or as Tim Ferriss puts it, “practical pessimism.” Something like a “law of subtraction” is contained in Lao-Tzu’s prescription for gaining wisdom: “subtract something every day.” For the Stoic, we must try not to control what cannot be controlled; for the Daoist, we must try not to try doing anything.  

But ceasing our attempts to control the future doesn’t mean writing the future off. It means changing how we relate to it. In the spirit of Stoicism, Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, introduced a useful framework for positing ourselves relative to the future. The individual is placed at the center of three concentric circles. The first is the circle of control. The second is the circle of influence. The third is the circle of concern. Obviously, the optimal allocation of your attention involves is to maximize focus on what you can control—e.g., how much sleep you get tonight—and minimize focus on what you’re concerned about—e.g., the prospects for peace in the Middle East—while devoting a decent amount of energy toward influencing those around you—e.g., friends, family, and colleagues. If you focus too much on what you’re concerned about, you’re going to “cut yourself.”

If we layer the circle of Hierocles on top of this one, and set it in a temporal context, interesting things start to happen. In this framework, the circle of the self is nested within progressively larger circles—family, community, nation, etc.—extending to humanity itself, the cosmopolitan perspective that the Stoics introduced into Western culture. Today, we would include an even more encompassing circle—the environment and nonhuman beings. The adage think “globally, act locally” tracks this idea—we should attempt to control and influence ourselves, others, and the world in ways that are aligned with global concerns. But when we add the temporal dimension, it gets more complicated.

In her new book, Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert grapples with precisely this question of how we are to relate to the future. The Baconian ethos of controlling nature to relieve the human estate, so successful in some respects, has generated a surfeit of social and environmental problems that threaten to do our civilization in in the long run. But exactly because of that success, it is tempting to think that by doubling down on control, we can fix these problems. If that modern vision was about gaining knowledge to control nature, the 21st century version of it will be about gaining knowledge to control the future. Kolbert, channeling the world-weary cynicism of many an environmentalist, sighs that all we can hope for is to “control our control of nature.” It is not a matter of whether we will be gods, but what sorts of gods we will be. Yet this position seems tragic: we are destined to death by 1,000 “cuts.”

But the apprentice carpenter is prone to error not just because he doesn’t know how to use the master’s tools, but because he doesn’t’ know wood. A master is a master first of all of his material, not his tools. The tools are a means toward revealing the shapes that slumber in the wood. He does not so much impose a pre-existing form in his mind on the blank canvas of the wood; he draws out the forms suggested by signature of the wood, and the tools are like different moves in the dance he leads it into.

The modern project has in large part been about treating nature—the wood—like a blank canvas that we can pain anything on—that we can turn into any shape we damn well please. It encodes an attitude toward the future that is fundamentally escapist: the earth is something to be not just used, but used up, and the future is regarded as an otherworldly paradise, freed from the laws and limits of this vale of tears. The future is something to which we wish to escape.

But our civilization is undergoing a tectonic shift in our relationship not just to the planet, but the future. Just as we must begin to think more globally, we have to think in longer time horizons. Luckily enough, our species is pretty good at this: indigenous and traditional cultures always played the long game. The difference is that they played the local game, not the global one. Our task, then, is truly new: to play a game both long and global.

The future is not something we can the ability or the right to control. It is something we have the ability and the responsibility to protect. We must trust that the wood—the natural world—will tell us how to redesign our civilization so that we can develop the tools necessary to bring it forth. The endgame is not escaping the earth, but learning how to be earthlings.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”