Wednesday 17 April 2024

The Future Will Be Confusing

I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion. — Jack Kerouac

This photograph of a neon sign was taken by my friend Louise Dawson, who kindly gave me permission to use it as the inspiration for a blog post. I initially took it as an engaging yet anonymous display. A little research, however, reveals the sign is part of (or based on) the 2010 series Will Be by UK based artist and writer Tim Etchells. According to the artist’s website, “the words make an uneasy promise about the nature of the future before us.”

I can’t confirm that Etchells originated the phrase, but it clearly has widespread appeal. There’s a 2023 piece of that name by Swiss visual artist Daniele Buetti, comprising a perforated photo in a lightbox with led lights. It’s also the title of two music albums released in 2019, by Jonathan Carmichael (Carmichael313) and Chris Crack, respectively.

I had no idea about all this when I first saw Louise’s photograph. All I knew was that it spoke to me. Why, though? I can begin by admitting a love of neon, such as the THIS IS OUR HAPPY PLACE sign at Room 305 in Whitley Bay which featured in my round-up of 2022 in photos and blog posts.

Beyond that, the words caught my attention as much by what they don’t say as what they do. Note that they say nothing about the future itself, only that we will be confused by it. And it’s will be, not is. We may or may not be confused now, thinking about what the future might hold, but that’s not the point being made. We will be confused. By the future. In the future. When it gets here. And there’s a lot of future out there. It would be wise to get used to the idea of being confused.

Confusion isn’t necessarily something to fear. It happens when our go-to patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving no longer work the way we’re used to them working. Something has changed, either in the outside world in which we’re acting, or inside us. Or both. If we’re open to it, this can be a moment of great potential. A paradigm shift, with all the opportunities for growth that affords. In this sense, confusion is the antidote to stifling certainty and arrogance. It teaches humility and patience, and encourages us to stretch our minds, attitudes, and practices.

I’ve experienced this twice in the past six months. The first was when I encountered the work of French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, specifically his concept of the Absurd Man. I explored my response in One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man. Camus brought me face-to-face with the confusion I’d long experienced, in never having found my place in the world or my PFE (Purpose for Existing, a phrase borrowed from John Strelecky’s book The Cafe on the Edge of the World). In Camus’ ideas I saw the potential of this existential confusion, which arises from our relentless search for meaning and purpose in a universe devoid of both. Absurdism doesn’t dismiss the confusion. It confronts it for what it is. In doing so, it grants us permission to find our own answers, our own sense of what it means to live meaningfully in a meaningless universe.

The second moment of clarity came when I learned about alexithymia, a condition characterised by finding it hard to express feelings and emotions in words. It’s something I’ve always struggled with, despite all the poetry, stories, essays, books, and blog posts I’ve written. Recognising that this difficulty itself has a label — alexithymia — reassures me that there’s nothing wrong with me, and that I’m not alone.

Confusion has its dark sides too. I have no direct knowledge or experience of psychosis, but from many conversations with friends I recognise how distressing, disturbing, and dangerous its effects can be. There’s also the inevitable decline in mental capacity and adaptability as we get older. As many of us know from our parents, grandparents, and other older friends and family members, this can take many forms. Some are devastatingly traumatic, others almost benign.

One elderly relative is living her sunset years contentedly disconnected from reality. She’s generally present and engaged with those around her. She recognises her family in person and on the phone, and maintains a great sense of humour and delight in life. At the same time, she’ll happily recount conversations with friends and family who’ve long deceased as though they happened only days ago. Past and present overlap gently for her. If she’s confused, it’s a state I wouldn’t fear for myself.

In stark contrast, my mother’s final years were characterised by distress, anxiety, and guilt that neither medical treatment nor the reassurance of loved ones could allay. A friend close to my own age — I’ve just turned sixty-three — is living with what appear to be the early signs of dementia. She finds herself increasingly forgetful and confused over dates and appointments. Even more distressing are the false memories; things she’s convinced have occurred which didn’t happen the way she recalls them, or at all.

None of us knows what’s coming, but it behoves us to do our best to minimise the risks. Fran and I discussed this recently and she expressed it well. “I’m living now in ways that increase the chance of having more years of good health.”

No matter our age or health, the rate of change in the world makes it increasingly difficult to keep pace with what’s going on. This is true whether we’re talking about advances in technology, climate change, or geopolitical instability. In such times, confusion is an understandable state. This is expressed well in an article on the 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair by Sabine Peschel for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“The Future Will Be Confusing” was written on a banner at the fair — an idea echoed by director Jürgen Boos [who] said. “What we are experiencing is a kind of complexity that cannot be easily understood. We are observing a new one-dimensionality in political views, where national and religious identities are pitted against each other.”

What can we do in the face of such complexity and change? It’s easy to react by running away or grabbing at apparent certainties. Camus rejected the flight into despair or dependence on religious or social dogma as physical or intellectual suicide. I agree. For me, the right response is to face doubt and uncertainty head on. To look inside myself, not for some ultimate purpose and meaning, but for a way of living that works for me. That enriches the lives of those who share the present and will share the future with me. May we face that future with hope, despite the promise of confusion.

I can think of no better way to close than with these words from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.


Photo of Hockley Social Club, Birmingham by Louise Dawson


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