Within much of Stoic thinking, which I generally embrace pretty strongly, there is a contradiction between being ready for the future and focusing on the present movement. Stoicism encourages a sense of presence, of living in the present moment, being aware of ones body and ones surroundings right now, and managing and controlling the things under ones control at this moment. We cannot control the future, and cannot predict exactly what will come to pass. Within Stoic thought, all we can control is how our mind reacts to the present moment, so we should focus on how we are using our time and attention in an effort to be our best selves right now.
What this mindset leaves out, or at best inadvertently omits, is the importance of long-term planning. To get to where we want to get, to achieve goals, and to utilize our resources and energy the most effectively, we have to be able to look ahead and plan for the future. Advanced planning means we have to tie the present moment and our actions to specific steps to help us achieve future desired endpoints and outcomes. We have to form theories of the world and build causal structures to form our own mental models that tell us, “if I do this now, then a certain effect will be produced in the future.”
There is a paradox in Stoic thinking when it comes to being present. The whole idea of presence is that it enables us to be less stressed, to focus on the tasks at hand, and to bring our best selves to each moment throughout the day. The ultimate end goal of all this, however, is to better achieve future goals. Presence on its own doesn’t matter to much, unless we are ok with living a life where we drift without a long-term plan. This paradox is not limited to Stoic thought, and in some ways ties back to our ancient foraging roots.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the shift in planning and thinking about the future that occurred with the Agricultural Revolution. Foragers, Harari explains, couldn’t save food for a long period of time. They could bring a handful of nuts or fruits with them, but carrying a large amount of nuts and fruits was cumbersome, and fruit would go bad quickly. Farmers, however, could produce a surplus of crops that could be harvested and saved for a longer period of time. Successful farming rewarded and required an ability to plan ahead, while foraging encouraged more thinking about the present moment. Harari writes, “in the subsistence economy of hunting and gathering, there was an obvious limit to such long-term planning. Paradoxically, it saved foragers a lot of anxieties. There was no sense in worrying about things that they could not influence. The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before.”
Our ancient foraging and farming ancestors seem to highlight the contradiction that we find in Stoic thinking of the present moment. Foragers lived in the present moment and didn’t have anxieties and concerns over the future. They moved where their food sources were and didn’t have to plan ahead too far. But they also didn’t become farmers and set human evolution on a path toward modernity. The farmers who kicked off the Agricultural Revolution were the ones who broke from living in the present moment to push humanity in the eventual direction evolution favored, building small farming communities, then towns, and eventually nations with massive metropolitan areas. Planning ahead was crucial for successful farming, even though it came with stress and anxiety, and broke against the ancient human evolved tradition of living in small foraging bands focused on the present moment. Planning ahead also helped ensure more people could survive and propelled the technological advances that enabled the Agricultural Revolution.