Why It’s Futile to Worry about the Future

In the recurring worries that consume so much of our emotional and mental energy, perhaps the most common element is their focus on an unknown future. We worry about what might happen, what seems likely, what is unlikely and even what’s nearly impossible. Consider how many of your own worried thoughts begin with the words “What if . . . ?” When you stop to think about it, you may realize you have at least an occasional obsession with the uncertainty and inherent possibilities in what hasn’t happened yet.

The future is a source of anxiety, a world of possibility, and a place we cannot access. Yet so much of our worry is caused by our efforts to live there. While we should care about the future and recognize how today’s choices shape tomorrow’s consequences, it doesn’t make sense for us to spend time worrying over what hasn’t happened. Let’s consider why.

Exactly what is the future? Merriam-Webster defines the future in three ways:
1. that is to be
2. of, relating to, or constituting a verb tense expressive of time yet to come
3. existing or occurring at a later time

By definition, the future doesn’t exist. It “is to be,” but it never is. We can’t see, taste, touch, smell or hear it, so how do we recognize it? It’s always beyond us, so does it ever arrive? Is it even real?

The future is a product of time, and physicists, who think professionally about such questions, generally agree that time does exist. But no physicist can explain and demonstrate exactly why it exists or how. And so far, physics has not been able to clearly demonstrate whether the future and the past simply are alive in our memories and our sense of anticipation or whether they continue to exist in parallel versions of our universe or alternate dimensions. Freaky, huh?

While we can’t explain time without referring to time itself, it provides definition and boundary for our lives. We’re aware of it nonstop, even when we don’t think about it, and we may consider it a friend or our worst enemy–but we can’t truly embrace or fight it. We know that it keeps moving at an objective level, regardless of whether we want it to or whether we’re aware of it (for example, time does not stop while we’re asleep). It exists outside our personal consciousness, and even if we throw away all our clocks, we can’t choose to reject it or opt out, living apart from its effects.

In our universe, we measure time by its passing, and we measure its passing with the spatial dimensions–with motion. Since ancient times, people have marked time by the sun’s journey across the sky (actually, the rotation of the earth), sand falling through an hourglass, the changing patterns of stars in the night sky. Today we measure it with ticking hands around a clock face, a swinging pendulum, the regular pattern of changing digital numbers.

But if we did not measure time, we would still see the effects of its passing. Every day, we see beginnings and ends–both temporal concepts. Babies develop, enter our world and grow. Buildings crumble. Food spoils. Natural elements decay. The aging process for all living things shows in physical evidence long before it ends in death. For some reason, which we don’t now understand, time moves forward. Unlike other physical laws and dimensions, time comes with a large-scale sense of constant progression and change.

That mysterious sense of forward motion is what defines and produces our inborn sense that the future exists. Where does the concept of the future come from? It’s from our own awareness of the passage of time. The time we can discern is only the present–and the present is merely a flashing moment. But at some point early in our development, we experience enough of these fleeting moments that we become aware of a body of time we call the past and another body that someday will be, however briefly, a brand-new present.

Our awareness of relationship between the future, the past and the constantly flowing present can and should affect our behavior. The experience of consequences makes us aware that what we do now will profoundly influence what we will face in the future. But for all our understanding of cause and effect, we can’t accurately predict the future. The world’s most knowledgeable physicists could never account for the vast number of possibilities in any future event. Even the path of a smooth stone tumbling down a grassy hill is affected by countless variables. When human choices enter the picture, the idea of accurate prediction is laughable. Even the most impressive possible set of knowledge about the physical world and its laws, combined with a deep and insightful understanding of human behavior, can’t tell us what will happen or help us control outcomes.

Whether it exists now in some other dimension or simply as a concept we understand because of our experience with the past, it is not within our power to place ourselves in the future. It is mysterious, but clearly an element without which our universe would not function as it does.

Essentially, for us the future is potential reality. It’s unborn time, a powerful specter of possibility. We sense that it exists–and I believe it does exist in the world God inhabits–but we can’t discern it, find it or own it.

When we worry, we fight the constraints of the way we and our world were created. We try to enter a place we can’t go. We try to control what we have no power over. It’s pointless. And it usually proves unwarranted.

This post was excerpted from Chapter 7 of Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry. If you want to read more, you can find the book here.

Taken from Anxious by Amy Simpson. Copyright(c) 2014 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission from InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

© 2014 Amy Simpson.