Law in Contemporary Society

An Examination of Imagining the Future

-- By EthanSinger - 13 Apr 2021


When I was younger, I often imagined my future self as a professional baseball player. Sometimes I still do. Primary process thinking, as David Rapaport calls it, comes easy.

In contrast, it is difficult for me to think about my future self with secondary process thinking. When asked to imagine where I see myself in 10 years, it almost feels as if I’m being asked to recall what I was doing at a random time and day, many weeks ago. I know the answer is there somewhere, but I primarily feel like I am being hit with a wall of paralyzing fog.

I have two main theories for why I struggle with imagining where I will see myself in 10 years. One theory involves an unconscious desire to avoid psychological conflict. The other theory is similar, and regards Mardi Horowitz’ observations about the role of inactive mental states and how unconscious contemplation of these states can influence behavior.

Psychological Conflict

The pattern of fogginess when thinking about what I want in the future can be seen with an even simpler thought exercise. For instance, if asked to pick what meal I’d like to eat for dinner in precisely 3 weeks, I feel a similar sense of fogginess. In one sense it seems easy to just pick a meal I like and move on, but in another sense, it feels daunting. At first, I thought that this may have to do with feeling constrained. However, just as imagining what I’d like to be doing 10 years future in the future is a temporary mental commitment, so is imagining the food I would like to eat in the future. Imagining this does not force me to commit and is not actually constraining. Instead, it is difficult because different personality states want different things. Making a choice about the future thus requires making a choice about a personality state in the future, which involves resolving a current conflict between states. When it comes to imagining my future self, one state cares deeply about the meaning of the work I am doing (and believes that representing indigent people accused of crimes would be quite meaningful), and another state cares more about the experience of making a lot of money and the meaning I can find outside of work. Additionally, one state is more willing to take risks than other states. Eventually, these states will reconcile, but the thought of reconciling them immediately with a decision about my future is intimidating, and refusing to reconcile them with a state of fog is the more immediately comfortable approach.

Inactive Mental States

Another theory of why I struggle to imagine where I’ll see myself in 10 years is that it is an unconscious mechanism to avoid a future identity state. Horowitz describes an example of this where a woman, Janice, would preemptively switch into an outwardly cheerful state when she felt herself slipping into a painful mental state characterized by despair (even though inwardly she did not feel cheerful). In my case, there are two memorable instances from my past related to thinking about my future, and both are unpleasant. One involves one of my first interviews back as an undergraduate, where the question I was least prepared for and gave the worst answer to was where I saw myself in X years. The other memory involves a time where in high school, I spent a lot of time imagining myself at a university, and sharing that hope with others, only to be rejected by school. While this is not quite on point with the example of Janice, the fogginess could be an attempt to avoid the gloomy states that resulted from those two memories where I attempted to think realistically about my future, and that may emerge if I attempt the exercise again.

Going Forward

One option this examination has revealed for me is that I could just push past the conflict and pick something that I know part of me wants to do. Realizing that there are separate states shows that there are futures that individual parts of me desire. Part of me thinks I would enjoy being a public defender after school and for the foreseeable future. Even though another part of me has concerns about this, I could push back these concerns for the benefit of having something for which I can begin planning. This however, feels problematic. As nice as it would be to have a clear path forward where I feel confident about what I want to do, if I have not actually reconciled my competing states, pretending that I have would only allow me to start planning for something that my eventual more reconciled self will not want to do.

While there are parts of me that are still in conflict, this examination has also helped me realize that there are some things that I have already decided about where I see myself in 10 years. I wish to be living in New York City and I wish to be doing work for individual clients rather than businesses. As I begin to expand my experiences in and and out of law school, thinking about my future should become easier. For instance, before moving to New York, I was not sure where I saw myself living in 10 years.

Additionally, I realize the importance of not letting difficulty imagining the future prevent me from doing what interests me now. This summer I am working at a public defenders office, and next school year I’ll be doing a full year criminal defense externship and the Jailhouse Lawyers Manual. Although I still feel conflicted about my future, I trust that along with thought exercises like the one in this essay, doing the activities I find meaningful in the short term will give me the experiences I need for further self reconciliation.

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r6 - 19 May 2021 - 02:40:52 - EthanSinger
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