A couple weeks ago, I was on the phone with a friend. He said something like “Hot take, but the future isn’t real. And even hotter take, the past isn’t real either”. I didn’t understand what he meant at all, but it confused me enough that I’ve thought about those words quite deeply. I’ve come to realize the profound simplicity in his idea of the present, and more importantly: freedom.
Preface: Mass Cooperation & Religion
The start of the intellectual revolution of humankind began with ideas of mass cooperation. These ideas were meant to unify groups of people and influence their behaviors.
During the tribal age, these ideas were popular in the form of folklore. These tales would describe the forces of nature such as why water falls from the sky or why bright dots appear in the sky at night. Humans have a natural desire to understand the world around them and the role they play in it. Given the recent progress of science, explanations of the how the world works are now universal, which has made tribal folklore increasingly uncommon. Let’s take the example of Moana, an animated Disney movie that was released in 2016. In the movie, a community of islanders share the story of Maui - a shape-shifting demigod credited for the creation of tides, breeze, coconuts, and a ton more. When the island is suffering from dying crops and a slew of sick fish, the islanders think of Maui. Moana sets out on an adventure to find Maui to restore the ocean’s happiness. Maui, as half-human, is imperfect enough to be relatable to the islanders and as half-god, is powerful enough to influence the behavior of the islanders. Folklore like Maui’s story explains both the present day environment and potential causes of suffering on the island to the islanders. It also drastically simplifies the reality of the islander life. They don’t need to be aware of political tensions on other islands. They don’t need to try to predict the weather. They don’t need to think about survival. All they need to do is cooperate to keep Maui happy and they can expect their ocean-related interactions to be smooth. They may have to please other gods for any other forces of nature they care about, but the process is pretty similar.
Happy god == predictable & happy life.
Folklore became the basis of polytheism - which is the belief or worship in multiple gods. A collection of stories within folklore could represent all the values, behaviors, and interactions within a community. The downside of this though is that is that people outside that community would not be able to relate. The goddess of the Tahitian volcano that controls the amount of fresh fish the island gets isn’t really something the tribe of hunters in the Moroccan desert care about.
Modern religion is based on monotheism, the belief or worship in a single god. There’s less of a physical place or outcome tied to it. The spread of monotheism was revolutionary because it introduced an unprecedented level of mass cooperation. It meant that a government in Europe could share the same values as one in Central Africa, or on a more fundamental level it meant that these two entities could now share and agree on a perception of time, education, and philosophy. Modern religion enhanced relatability. Every adopter could relate to each other despite their specific life problems.
It’s a one-god-fits-all solution.
The future isn’t real
Mass cooperation was fueled by progression of science. First it was through explanations of our physical world such as gravity and precipitation and astronomy. This removed the need for multiple gods responsible for each individual force of nature. Next it was through connecting communities through advanced modes of transportation, such as boats, trains, planes. This made it necessary to create universal systems such as the calendar, timezones, borders, and currencies to stay connected. Each progression was enforced through evolutions of religion, which is essentially the representation of values, behaviors, and interactions within its followers.
The religion of today is capitalism. The god is the economy. It influences what we value (capital) and how we spend our time (maximizing productivity through mass cooperation). Unlike the islanders, humans praying to the god of capitalism do need to worry about the weather, the political tensions elsewhere in the world, and survival. All those things directly impact every disciple under the capitalism religion.
The humans of modern society spend a lot of time thinking about its religion, just as humans of the past. The main difference is that religion of capitalism is an interconnected system focused on delayed returns, as opposed to tribal polytheistic religion focused on immediate returns. Our ancestors had a relatively simple system: pray to the god of rain for more rain, if current amount of rain is not enough for survival. Modern day human problems are more complex. If amount of capital isn’t enough for survival, the human would need to re-evaluate how to spend their current resources (likely time and current capital) to yield more capital. They’d also have to take into account the current political state of their home community and international community as well as projected future state. The interconnected nature of capitalism means that any human could significantly impact another human’s ability to collect & accrue capital. These all impact the expected (delayed) return of investment of the modern day human’s resources.
Our ancestors did not have to think about the future as much as modern day humans. Pre-modern humans had immediate problems that were comforted by the immediate solutions offered by pre-modern religion. Modern day religion can only solve immediate problems with the delayed return of past investments. The future was not that real to pre-modern humans but its the main thing the modern day humans have to think about.
The past isn’t real either
Naturally being more of an anxious person, I strive for security in myself and my surroundings as a way to balance those natural anxious tendencies. I’ve become acquainted with the anxious version of myself over the years. I can now recognize all the different ways in which my anxious self takes form. For example, I find that much of my anxiety lives in my memories. Particularly in the way I relive my past. During hard times, I find myself replaying painful memories in my head as an attempt to understand why things played out the way they did. There’s a strong desire within me to find the logic behind the words and actions of all the stakeholders of a painful memory. I convince myself that if I could just understand the intention behind everyone’s actions, I could find closure. I’d be able to rationalize away all the feelings of hurt and betrayal and finally move on.
The problem with rationalizing though, is that it further distances me from acceptance. Rationalizing requires me to fully indulge in the anxious “what if” thought. It requires questioning every possible permutation of my life had the past just been a little different. It’s easy to spiral and becoming obsessed with trying understand the reasons of whatever happened - hoping that understanding would “solve” it. I become a version of a mad scientist in my head with a haunting addiction to discover a breakthrough that can explain how the universe (or in this case, present day me) came into existence.
Pre-modern religion did a really good at providing answers when none existed. It didn’t matter if it was drought or dead fish, a dedicated prayer could alleviate worries. Pre-modern religion encouraged acceptance and faith in a higher power to protect all those who pray. Modern day religion is based on the evolution of science, which inherently contradicts the idea of acceptance. Science is about maximizing knowledge, and acceptance is about embracing the unknown, sometimes ignorantly. Acceptance meant that the past did not have to be as real to the pre-modern human under the influence of pre-modern religion.
It makes sense why the modern day human spends so much time thinking about anything other than the present moment. It makes sense why the modern day human has more chronic anxiety than ever before. From protecting our future selves, to obsessively trying to understand past selves, we end up living in moments that don’t exist. The practice of pre-modern religion had a major focus on surrendering yourself to the present moment. The present is where acceptance can happen, and where we can become comforted by all that we have, regardless of our immediate (or delayed) problems. The present is where true freedom exists.
I promise to continually surrender myself to the present moment.
Shoutout to Thenuka for the inspiration.
And Prabh for reading drafts of this.