Fantasizing a Better Life

On Living in the Moment and Realistic Hope for the Future

Todd Brewer / 1.28.21

In one of the more hilarious ironies of 2020, Mockingbird published a Future Issue of the magazine, just weeks before the world would be turned upside down from COVID. Dystopian and Utopian predictions were assessed. Zombies, alien invasions, and the end of the world featured prominently. I don’t think a global pandemic was even on the radar.

We’re simply not very good at anticipating the future. In 1900, a German chocolate company commissioned postcards depicting what life would look like a hundred years later. In the year 2000, life would have fewer inconveniences, more excitement, and better overall quality. Though one card featured something like a TV broadcast, the rest were woefully inaccurate: city blocks pulled by a locomotive, a city adorned with its own rooftop, personal flying machines, and a contraption that cleared away rainclouds. It was nearly impossible for those living in 1900 to foresee the vast changes that would sweep the globe over the next century: cell phones, birth control, two world wars, nuclear power, personal computers, and Pop Tarts. Outside of David Zahl’s clairvoyance in Seculosity (see below), the future is mostly a mystery.

What we anticipate for the future is largely shaped by our past and present experiences. The mythical idea of 2000 was still a world powered by steam engines and hot air balloons, populated by top hats and full-length dresses. Whether one leans toward a utopian future or an apocalyptic disaster, these projections arise from within imaginations constrained by what seems possible now. The future is not where the possible becomes real, but the impossible, unforeseen.

However much our prediction-affliction is plagued by inevitable errors, glancing ahead on the calendar with anticipation is all we can do in this pandemic moment. It’s also probably healthy for us.

There was a recent New York Times article asking people about the first thing they’ll do once the pandemic is finally over. Answers ranged from the mundane to the bawdy: from dance clubs to playdates for kids at the park. Not simply an exercise in make-believe play, psychologists suggest that having such hopes is cathartic:

“Even though it’s not considered a core symptom of depression, the absence of hope is a common symptom,” said Dr. Toure. Future thinking, or “the imagination and belief that something better is coming,” is crucial to getting through hard times.

Holding on to hope, even about one simple, mundane thing can make a big difference, Dr. O’Connor said. “I’m not day dreaming of big trips,” she said. “I can’t wait to hug my mom.”

Admittedly, the realist in me is more than a bit suspicious of this power-of-positive-thinking vibe. Fantasy can be another word for denial. We can hope for the wrong thing. Wasn’t it Jesus who warned against worrying about tomorrow? Today has enough trouble on its own, right? But looking back over my pandemic life, pondering the lilies of the field wasn’t exactly my go-to coping mechanism.

Around 10 months ago, when the walls were closing in around New York City as fear and uncertainty made everyone bleach-clean their grocery deliveries, the optimist in me saw an opportunity. Airlines around the world ground to a halt, and I guessed that flights would be cheap. I hadn’t a clue when the pandemic would end, but I booked tickets to England for March of 2021 (to the tune of $1 a ticket). In the midst of disaster, the possibility of seeing longtime friends and the familiar landscape of Durham were about the most hopeful thing I could think of.

I didn’t know if a transcontinental flight would ever actually happen, but the imagined joy was worth the price. In the months that followed and pandemic life became the new normal, my thoughts would drift to that fabled upcoming vacation. I’d imagine the early daffodils at the roundabouts, the familiar smell of an old local pub, and a towering cathedral in the countryside. Oddly, these brief excursions kept me going, assuring me that pandemic life was a temporary tragedy. Daydreaming of England did more for my well-being than any press conference from Dr. Fauci.

Our fantasies may or may not come true soon — the verdict is still out on my travel plans — but their benefits are worth the risk of disappointment. What will you do the day you get your second dose? Or when the storm finally passes?

Our hopes, however great or small, draw us out of the afflictions of the present and into a more ideal future, reframing how we view our circumstances and providing resources to continue to persevere despite all evidence to the contrary. Hope believes that the impossible can become real. To dream that the burdens of our past heartbreaks and failures will one day not determine our lives somehow lessens their burden. Studies show that marathon runners run faster when gazing in the distance. The light at the end of the tunnel makes the present darkness feel less oppressive.

If you told the earliest Christian to “live in the moment,” they’d probably laugh. Living in the moment is the kind of adage that only makes sense to affluent suburbanites drinking oat milk. It’s impossible for those who live under the constant fear of persecution. No, the earliest Christians had their eyes fixed on the horizon, awaiting the coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. Hope, for them, wasn’t just another fantasy. They labored because they knew that their labors were not in vain. For them, life is a race that has an end, with the hope of resurrection awaiting them at the finish line.

As fanciful as it might sound, resurrection hope is more than a daydream. What’s on the other side of death is better than our wildest guesses about post-pandemic life. Whatever we think it might be will probably be wrong, but it doesn’t hurt to dream. I don’t know what it is for you, but my money is on flying cars and an endless supply of Pop Tarts.