Why Can’t I Believe In The Future?

Trigger warning — this piece contains slight mentions of death and suicide. Please proceed with caution & stay safe.

(Sorry for publishing another pandemic-themed piece, but this has been in my drafts for a while and I thought it was still good enough to publish. I’ll try and return to my usual content soon, but as you all know I’ve been lacking inspiration.)

Earlier, I was reading Lilly Dancyger’s essay My Book Comes Out Next Year. Do I Even Still Believe in Next Year?, which I found almost uncomfortably relatable. It hit me hard as this period of turmoil has exacerbated an underlying problem that I’ve been trying to deal with for a long time now.

That problem is that I can’t visualise any sort of future for myself, and haven’t been able to for most of my life, and the coronavirus has just made it worse. I’ve never been able to picture myself as an adult with a job and a family, or a university student, or anyone other than a frantic secondary school student up all night worrying about an envelope containing some numbers or letters, the end result of a cumulative 14 years of schooling, that will determine my future — a future I’ve always subconsciously believed I’d never have.

I’ve spent most of my life, and expended far too much energy, worrying and stressing about the future, an abstract concept full of things that will happen, things that could happen, and things that are unlikely to happen but still have an element of possibility for my anxiety to latch onto and feed off to grow itself like a parasite.

It’s a large cause of my insomnia, and a reason why I’m often still lying awake two hours after I decide to go to bed. That, as well as things in the past that I can’t change and major issues that are going on right now, is just one component of what I stress about, but usually, for me, it’s the most damaging and reoccurring of my worries.

You’d think, then, with all my stress about the future, that I’m the type to be prepared for all eventualities and who has their life completely mapped out, but I’ll stop you right there and tell you it isn’t the case. Even though my nightly bouts of insomnia mean plenty of time to make plans for whatever short term problems are bothering me, anything further ahead than my A-Levels is completely shrouded in mystery.

This could be for many reasons — I’m too indecisive to make important choices like my university degree yet, or I’m sticking my head in the sand, completely in denial about ever having to enter into adulthood. Although, I think it’s something else, that I’m not just in denial about the future, but that I physically cannot imagine myself beyond school.

Of course, leaving the confines of a set routine that has dominated my life for as long as I can remember is a daunting prospect, so it can be difficult to plan for and to accept. But it always seems like everyone else I know has some sort of plan for what they’re going to do with their lives, or at least a recognition that life will go on after we take our A-Levels, a recognition I seem not to possess.

It’s not that I want to die young (well, not any more, at least), but I feel more that I’m supposed to, that I have to, that I will. As I get older and this future gets closer and closer as time marches on, I’ve stubbornly stuck to this belief and my brain has followed suit, refusing to let go of this idea that’s taken root in my mind. It feels like an inevitability. Despite that, I’m going to have to start making some big decisions soon about this future that I was convinced I’d never have, because it seems more and more likely that I will have to live it.

These decisions fill me with a potent dose of terror, because they’re so important and not ones I can just flip a coin over or leave to chance to decide. I haven’t ended up formulating any desires for my future other than pipe dreams, like leading a revolution or winning an Oscar, so I now have to make some hard choices about careers.

I’m sure you all already know about my career angst from my previous essays. To summarise — I have no desire to get a job but since I live under capitalism I have to be productive at all hours in order to have value in society, so I’m a shit out of luck. My preferred career, if I’m able to get in job in that field, is any sort of writing job, whether it’s as a journalist, a critic, an author or a screenwriter. Even though I was happy enough with one of those jobs, many people’s expectation is that I would pursue that as a hobby on the side of a different, “real” career that would be my primary source of income.

I was battling with whether to stick on my preferred route or to go with that advice, until the coronavirus happened and managed to push everything else I’ve been stressing about out of the window, ushering in a host of new problems in its wake. Now, with the advent of the pandemic, all those old stresses and future plans have been replaced inside my head with a mix of far-off anxiety about getting behind on my schooling and a haze of nihilism.

That inability to imagine the future that I’ve been struggling with for a while now has been getting worse and worse due to the pandemic, as my normal life has been put on hold for the foreseeable future. Even now, the UK still doesn’t have an end date for our lockdown, so our return to normalcy is still just as shrouded in mystery as it was back in late March when all this kicked off.

I’m not going to go out into the street and protest for the lockdown to end just so I can get a haircut and sacrifice others to the economy for it, don’t worry. In fact, I can see a personal silver lining in all this, which is that it has granted me a break from the anxieties which usually plague me whenever I try to sleep. I’m very lucky in that neither myself nor any of my loved ones is at a major risk of dying from the virus or of losing their economic stability, so I recognise that the pandemic and the lockdown has been far easier on me than it has been for many other people, and I don’t want to seem tone-deaf by pointing this out. However, this has been one change to my life under lockdown that I am reluctant to give up.

In some ways the virus has put things into perspective for me. It’s pointless worrying about exams that won’t matter in a year, let alone ten, when we could all die of a deadly virus. But in other ways that newfound perspective has descended into nihilism, a thought process that had already been bubbling up inside me before this had started happening. Our existence is on such a small scale compared to the rest of the universe, so nothing I do will make a difference in the grand scheme of things; climate change is going to end my life prematurely so what’s the point in planning for a future I may never have?

This has now morphed into me all but giving up on schoolwork, on my exams, on all the academic certainties in my life from before lockdown. My online classes have become this strange, other-worldly limbo, in which I appear to have regained my realisation from previous school years that none of the work I’m doing matters in the long term. This hasn’t helped me academically, but it has been refreshing for my mental health; I wasn’t aware just how much pressure my school and myself were piling onto me.

I think the fact that this lockdown has been a sort of limbo period is the reason why my inability to perceive a future for myself has been getting worse recently. The uncertainty of recent weeks that will probably hang over us all for the next year has made any sort of visualisation of the future nearly impossible, and reserved only for scientists and experts who can at least make their predictions informed.

It seems, in the darkest corners of my mind, like I don’t even have a future at all anymore, and that is a truly scary thought.

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