March 13, 2011

Lost time, sedimentation, and the future as a form of unreality

A few days ago I had a business appointment at the company headquarters which was scheduled to start at ten in the morning. I planned to be there half an hour early to prepare a few things for the presentation I was to give; since I was going there by public transport which normally takes about 40 minutes, I left home at 8:40 and walked to the tram station.

As I found out, the workers of all the public transport firms were on strike, and there was no tram arriving for the next half hour; then a defect along the way forced the train to take a detour; in between I had to sprint across the street from one stop which was temporarily out of order to another one. When I arrived at the office, I was half an hour late and the meeting had already started; I was just in time to give my presentation. It went well, and there wasn't really any harm done; still it wasn't exactly my favorite sort of morning: I had lost some time I would have rather spent otherwise than standing around at train stops in the cold or sitting in overcrowded trains among angry commuters, I'd felt some nervousness and anger myself during the journey, and afterwards I looked back at it as somewhat stressful; I had probably caused some (minor) unplanned re-organizing at the office when I called in to give notice I would be late; and I was forced to improvise a little in my presentation which I had to do without the planned preparation.

Things like that happen all the time, and they're a good example of how we have to adjust our plans when events turn out unexpectedly. There is often some discomfort to it when that happens: when reality diverges from what we planned (or hoped), we feel negative about it. (Depending on one's temperament, and the amount of difference between expected and actual course of events, the feeling will be more or less intense, ranging from slight irritation to being outright annoyed or angry.) And although we might take measures in advance to prevent unpleasant surprises, we'd normally do that only in special cases, when the outcome is particularly important to us. It's impossible to do that for every imaginable circumstance, and even where it is possible, the risk, although it is real, is often simply to small to bother.

If it's not avoidable to run into situations like that from time to time, and if it's not a big problem (after all, the resulting problems in my example were all easily handled), then what is the source of the negative feeling?

At the base of it seems to be a comparison: between a more favorable situation (the planned one) and a less favorable one (the one that actually obtained). So there seems to be some judgment in play, a judgment of the relative values of those two versions. Since the actual outcome is seen to have less value for us, the difference is perceived as negative. Thus in my example, the loss was primarily one of time: I spent about an hour in traffic that was planned to be used for business. The planned outcome would have been more valuable compared to the actual outcome, it would have been an hour better spent. So the overall judgment of that course of events is naturally a negative one.

However, that seems to be only part of the story. Compare it with a different example: the weather. Sometimes we expect nice weather and are then surprised by sudden cold or rain. One could make a similar calculation, then, about those two situations (the expected and the actual situation), and again the difference in value would be negative, since the actual bad weather would have a lower value than the expected nice weather. Yet, with respect to the weather, people rarely react annoyed — everyone knows that the weather isn't reliable, after all.

A key difference between the tram example and the weather example is the kind of value we're talking about: our time is generally (and rightfully) seen to be of a higher sort of value than mere physical comfort. Overall, life time spent well adds up to a successful life in a way in which the pleasantness of feeling in nice weather doesn't.

(Our time is also something we're responsible for in a way in which weather conditions aren't. Using it well is up to us to a higher degree than the external conditions around us are. This aspect, however, doesn't account for the difference between the two examples: in the tram example, the external circumstance weren't really something I could influence any more than I could influence the weather. I could have informed myself better about them in advance; but then, one can normally inform oneself about the weather in advance, too.)

Life time is not simply something that passes by; it consists not simply of events that happen. Life time is something that is made up of our own actions and their results as much as of circumstances external to those actions (i.e. things out of our direct control, things that simply happen to us.) In the tram example, the sequence of events that I had planned was not simply different from what actually happened: what I had planned was active and productive use of my time, where one step built onto the other. What happened instead wasn't just something else; it was precisely no longer a sequence of productive, constructive action, but mostly reactive and unproductive. And this is what lies at the root of the uneasiness: when reality runs counter to plans or projections, it runs counter to a form of unreality. More precisely: it runs against what has already partially sedimented from an instance of that form of unreality.


Thinking about the future is a form of unreality. Just like other such forms, future-related unreality is produced when we make up, in our thoughts, a version of reality that differs from it in some respects. When we make plans, we envisage a future state that is different from the present state as we conceive of it. When we begin acting out such plans, this is sedimentation of unreality: if everything goes by plan, the present situation transforms gradually into what we've planned. One action builds on the results of the preceding actions, and the whole course gets its direction by the projected future state we envisaged first (the instance of unreality). We might make some adjustments along the way, but as long as we can keep the original goal it remains that same instance of unreality gradually sedimenting itself into reality.

If, on the other hand, the plan breaks down and it becomes clear that it won't be realized, the original instance of unreality gets abandoned, and as far as the sedimentation has already taken place, it becomes a write-off, a misspent investment. Whatever time and effort has gone into it is recognized as wasted or misdirected in retrospect — and since that is a precious resource for each of us, that hurts.

There is a great variety in thinking about the future, and it still remains to be shown that they all constitute yet another form of unreality. If they do, then the process I've called sedimentation is something very common; whenever it is frustrated, the situation is akin to what I've described in my example. Thus, one thing this account can serve to explain is the negative feeling we might feel in such situations; another one is the hesitation we often experience to engage in what I've called reflection, i.e. cutting down instances of unreality in living our lives. (In reflection, we deliberately act against already partially sedimented unreality, so in a sense we have to bring ourselves into the unpleasant situation described in the tram example.)

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