Mastering the Past and Future So They Don’t Master You

The Courage to be Disliked is a self-help book by Japanese writers Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga that takes the form of a fictitious conversation between a young student and a wise philosopher.

Dissatisfied with life, the youth visits the philosopher to learn about the simplicity and happiness that are eluding him.

The philosopher’s guidance is based largely on the work of Alfred Adler, however many of his lessons are extremely compatible with Stoicism.

One such example is the philosopher’s treatment of the past as he tries to teach the youth to adopt a more fatalistic attitude toward things that can’t be changed.

The conversation around this plays out as follows:

YOUTH: So, people are not controlled either by emotion or the past?

PHILOSOPHER: Okay, for example, suppose there is someone whose parents had divorced in his past. Isn’t this something objective, the same as the well water that is always eighteen degrees? But then, does that divorce feel cold or does it feel warm? So, this is a ‘now’ thing, a subjective thing. Regardless of what may have happened in the past, it is the meaning that is attributed to it that determines the way someone’s present will be.

YOUTH: The question isn’t ‘what happened?’, but ‘how was it resolved?’

PHILOSOPHER: Exactly. We can’t go back to the past in a time machine. We can’t turn back the hands of time. If you end up staying with the cause, you will be bound by the past and never be able to find happiness.

YOUTH: That’s right! We can’t change the past, and that’s precisely why life is so hard.

PHILOSOPHER: Life isn’t just hard. If the past determined everything and couldn’t be changed, we who are living today would no longer be able to take effective steps forward in our lives. What would happen as a result? We would end up with the kind of nihilism and pessimism that loses hope in the world and gives up on life.

It’s the same with Stoicism. While we can learn from the past, we’re encouraged to move on from it. It’s gone and can’t be changed.

While that may seem like a cause for despair, it’s actually quite motivating to acknowledge that we’re not automatically bound by what happened prior to today.

The meaning we attribute to past events is our own choice and the fact that so many people can keep taking effective steps forward in their lives despite having suffered terribly in their past is evidence for everyone else that there is always hope.

In his moral letters to Lucilius, the Stoic philosopher Seneca was constantly reminding his friend not to waste time.

His point was that we all have a limited supply of minutes each day and it would be foolish to throw them away unnecessarily.

In addition to the type of rumination over the past that we’ve just touched on, another common way in which we waste time is to worry in the present about what might happen in the future.

We cast a shadow over now and miss opportunities to fully engage with the present moment.

It’s clear from Seneca’s advice on this issue that human nature hasn’t changed too much in the last 2000 years. Here’s how he encouraged Lucilius to be more rational about the future:

It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact.

How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things.

What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe.

Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.

Seneca, Letters 13.10

Sure, as Seneca put it, troubles may befall us. That’s life. But they’re not a present fact more often than they are.

Why should we run out to meet our suffering before it is necessary? Why can’t we look forward to better things? Why can’t we give ourselves the gift of present time?

Just like we have the power to interpret the past in the most constructive way possible, we also have the power to make our own choices in response to questions about the future.

Perhaps bad fortune will arrive today, perhaps not.

In the meantime it’s not, so let’s engage with the day that we now dwell in and if thoughts of the past or future arise, let’s learn from what’s gone before and look ahead to better things.