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THERE IS NO FUTURE TREE;

OR TIME WORKS THE WAY YOU THINK IT DOES

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By S. A. Miller

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The Montréal Review, June 2016

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Harry Callahan, Chicago (Trees in Snow), 1950, 8 x 10 in. (20.32 x 25.4 cm.)

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My aim is to convince you of a few things, mostly about time. But, more than that, I want to ease your suffering.

The future does not exist.

Not: it hasn’t arrived yet. Rather: there is no such thing, no point in time beyond this one, beyond the present.

Also, time moves in only one direction: forward.

In moving forward in time, however, we shouldn’t imagine that we move into something that already exists, like traveling across a desert or down a river.

Think instead of a tree whose branches — in customary fashion — grow outward and never inward. The sapling is smaller than it will one day be, but the larger future tree does not exist, except as an expectation.

Perhaps this suggests that the tree is growing into something, an actually existing environment that will contain the future tree, like the portion of the river through which we’ve not yet paddled.

Perhaps. But that would be space. I’m talking about time. And suffering. Don’t be greedy.

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Desiring something that currently exists, such as a bicycle or a timepiece or a box of cereal, is sensible, or, at any rate, coherent. You can buy the cereal, save up for the watch, steal the bike, etc.

Wanting something that does not exist, however, is, on briefest reflection, strange.

What one desires is: nothing.

That might sound coy. Surely, one desires something, even if that something does not presently exist.

One can desire something that might exist in the future, like a mobile phone with better battery life or greater political civility or an improved prognosis at the next visit with the oncologist.

But that’s the future you’re imagining, and, as the future, it cannot, as a matter of fact — indeed, as a matter of metaphysics — exist.

There is no future tree, just a hope that the world will, at some point, take a particular shape.

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A more vexed question concerns the past, namely, whether one can wish for things to have gone otherwise in life. Doing so seems to be a wish to have turned out differently oneself.

This makes peculiar: “I wish my life had gone differently.”

Your life, for better or worse, is quite possibly perfectly unique, which isn’t, of course, to say special.

Perhaps metaphysics, in this way, shows the folly of regret, unless regret is just a desire for nonexistence. In which case, you are probably on to something.

But, again, let’s not be greedy. Let’s concern ourselves with the future, or, rather, with ceasing to doing so.

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Mourning is backward looking, affixed to loss, to the past.

Longing, too, takes as its object something absent, though often contemporaneous.

So far, so good.

Much that appears contemporaneous, however, isn’t.

A desire for a particular friend — call her Sam — to become a lover is not a longing for something that exists.

You don’t desire Sam; you desire a future in which your relationship to Sam is different.

Strange as it may seem — and though you may protest strenuously — you cannot desire Sam as a lover for there is no such person.

There is no future tree. You have no future lovers.

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To say that you cannot desire Sam is not to say that you cannot desire, it is not to deny the ache in your heart, which is, I take you at your word, indubitable, real as a stubbed toe.

Also real, unfortunately, is the worry that Sam will never be yours, that she will never make love to you, that she will choose someone else, that all those pleasures will be lost, leaving you bereft.

And, thus, longing turns to pining, a desire to relive what was never experienced.

Not content to simply desire the non-existent, you mourn it.

You nurse a grudge against an imagined foe for unuttered slander.

And absurdity piles on top of impossibility.

And you suffer.

I don’t want you to suffer. I don’t want you to mourn preemptively.

Life is full of mourning as it is.

The bare fact of death’s inevitability, another consequence of intransigent time, will, all by itself, provide a never ending tide of woe that will overtake you, that will swallow you up and bury you in the end.

So, save those matches. Don’t burn them all. You’ll need them.

For a failure to mourn when one ought is a defect of character.

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The crux of the matter — the trick to all this — is: what to do with fantasies?

Sam is a fantasy. That’s fine.

Let her be a reverie.

But should the thrilling, vertiginous splash of heart into guts at the sight of Sam be replaced with anxiety, with a dread that your fantasies won’t come true, well, then, stop.

Things have gone sideways, and it’s your fault.

The Sam you are imagining does not exist, so you cannot miss her.

You know that she does not exist, even if your body will not listen, even if it has forgotten.

Your certainty is grounded in the knowledge of how time works, from knowing that there is no future, and, therefore, no future with Sam.

Understand that longing is a mistake, that is, it is incorrect.

Adopt the mantra: there is no future tree.

Your suffering will ease.

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Shawn A. Miller is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Davis. His work has appeared in Bookslut, The Short Review, the Sacramento News & Review, and the Pacific Sun.

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