The world without us: seeing the future for our children

Children are the almost unfathomable embodiment of the other-in-the-self, and as such they present us with our own limitations. We begin with an exercise in self-multiplication and what we get is a human that I think is most striking for not being a reproduction of the self. An extension of the self that is not the self, that goes beyond. Even while I’ve heard that adoptive parents have that moment of “yes, this is my child” just as strongly as do birth parents, I have also had my own experience of thinking “who is this alien being that came out of my body?” corroborated by others.

One of the effects of this uncanniness is that it forces us to confront our futural imaginations, or lack thereof. Suddenly the world that will outlive us matters to us quite intensely, and yet I don’t think we can really get our heads around this future-without-us. When I look at my small darlings, I often get a feeling of profound sadness for them. When I try to articulate it, I can only come up with a sort of vague sense that they will never get to experience life as I have because the world is ending. This is a crazy thought! And yet it’s always there, lurking under the surface whenever I picture the future, or more properly whenever I fail to do so.

Is this because the world is, in fact, headed for large-scale disasters of the environmental and political kind? The sense that the world is indeed on the brink tends to dominate our news these days, and yet I don’t think this really explains my feelings. I have read somewhere that every generation has always believed itself to be the last, and when I examine my explicit views it is clear to me that I don’t in fact think that the end is coming, not quite that soon anyway. What I suspect is that we are just deeply self-centred and cannot as such invest our minds in the idea that the world will really and truly continue to exist without us.

The phenomenological tradition in philosophy has language that sheds some light on this. Phenomenologists talk about ‘world’ and ‘self’, not as concrete objects, but as the framework for our experience. World is not itself an object of experience but a sort of background for everything else, a condition on which things can be experienced. This sense of world depends, in turn, on the self as a sort of centre, the locus of the experiencing itself. Put otherwise, self is a sort of hub of experience and world is the radius of that experiencing.

This seems to help explain why I can’t really imagine the world without myself. Of course I can believe in it, can even speculate on what it might look like, but then what I’m doing is really an intellectual reflection in which I consider things that might be the case in this future. But since the activity of imagining (in the sense of anticipating real events, rather than in the sense of indulging in flights of fancy) is a sort of projecting of myself into the future, there is a structural impossibility to conceiving in this way of a future in which I don’t exist. If this distinction seems overly academic, just try it. Try to anticipate the details of a holiday you will take with family or friends. Now try to anticipate that same holiday without you: of course you can picture it, but as you do so it’s as if you’re still there, watching it unseen. That’s what it feels like to try to anticipate more generally a world in which you don’t exist.

I wonder if this isn’t also the source of that old-age delight that we call “old-fogeyism”. If we can’t picture the world without us, is it also true that when we get older and less supple, less receptive to learning and new experiences, that our selves-as-centre begin to calcify? If the problem is that we can’t experience in imagination the world when we’re dead, are we also unable to really see the world as our children do because the world has moved on without us? Of course we can never see the world from any perspective but our own, but the experimentation of being young is all about trying out new perspectives, trying on new convictions and belief systems, and these are the glasses through which we see the world.

Henry Miller describes the way that he empties himself out constantly in order to be a receptacle for the world, for experience that is fluid and changing as the world fundamentally is. At some point, I imagine, this self as locus of experience starts to become rigid, unable to see the world through any lens other than the last one we tried on that has dried up and become part of our face. When we see the world changing rapidly around us and we can no longer adapt to new perspectives, is that when we write it off and say it’s all going to hell? Is that when we feel sad looking at our children? Are we thinking that they’ll miss out on life as it really ought to be when the problem is that we ourselves aren’t fluid enough to continue to see the world as it really is?

Of course the greater problem is not that we are cranky and inflexible when we’re old, but that we seem unable to live for future generations, to preserve the planet for them, to leave behind sustainable economic structures. Though we may save for our children’s education and carefully prepare our wills for them, we can’t seem to live as though the world they will live in matters. Perhaps this should be our goal as a species – yes, we can have species goals! In fact, having species goals is exactly what ought to be our species goal. Nietzsche’s Overman is a being who sacrifices himself for a better future for humankind. He’s better than us because he has overcome this structural limitation; either he has somehow become capable of anticipating the world beyond, or he has become capable of living for something he can’t anticipate. Either way, this ought to be a goal – instead of believing that the world will go on and living as though it won’t, might we just imagine the possibility that it may not and live as though it depended on us?