To predict what is to come, we need eyes in the backs of our heads.
Lisette Thooft | December 2011 Issue
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be able to see into the future, to know what lies ahead, what fate has in store. As a child, my favorite books featured characters with magical powers, like fortune-tellers reading crystal balls. When I was 20 years old, I discovered the I Ching, followed by the tarot. I spent endless hours with oracles.
Sometimes, those oracles provided a kind of peep show of the future. I clearly remember one time asking how things would go at work over the coming period and being shocked when I pulled the Death card. I was stumped because things were going well with my freelance writing, and I’d only expected was a little advice on how to do even better. I dealt the cards again, and again saw the Death card, along with other cards indicating departure or loss. Shortly thereafter, my mother was diagnosed with an incurable illness. In the year that followed, I cut my work hours in half to help take care of her at home until she died.
All it takes is a few similar “successes,” and you start believing you can predict the future. But there were glaring blunders as well. The tarot cards would tell me, “What you desire will come to pass.” Instead, I would experience a nasty rejection. I finally concluded that oracles are not reliable predictors of the future. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, and you can’t tell which will happen when. There is emotional static on the line; what I hope or fear influences the result.
But what about dreams? Many times I’ve had dreams that came to pass nearly exactly as I had seen them; once I won a prize and another time my car crashed into a tram. I’ve also dreamed about events that appeared the next morning in the newspaper. And I’m not the only one I know who has had predictive dreams.
The Irish aviation engineer J.W. Dunne (1875-1949) trained himself and a team of colleagues to remember their dreams. He concluded that a whopping 40 percent of everything we dream happens in the future. Dunne believed our linear image of time doesn’t line up with reality because the present, past and future exist simultaneously. We are like voyagers on a boat traveling slowly along the river of time. We can see what’s happening on both sides of the boat, but what lies ahead is shrouded in mist and darkness. Nonetheless, it is there.
In her book Time On Our Side, Joke Hermsen describes how the Greeks, interestingly enough, believe we are standing with our backs to the future. Their sense is that the future is not in front of us but is pushing us from behind. This is a classic concept. A book about dreams written by Artemidorus in the second century A.D. asserts that everything behind you in a dream is a symbol of the future. “The future is the invisible, the quintessential unknown,” Hermsen writes. “What is in front of you, and what you see, is nothing but the past.” A logical thought, she believes, but one at odds with our concept of time.
Initially, I found this idea somewhat troubling. Hermsen also talks about how bad the Greeks are at planning. They live in the here and now, worrying little about the future, and as a result, problems are left to solve themselves or be resolved by higher powers. Which doesn’t exactly sound like the best approach.
Still, I feel increasingly partial to the concept of an invisible future, one that’s pushing us from behind and we can’t see. After all, everything we can dream up about the future comes from our past. Anything you think of is something you already knew or perceived. At best, it’s a new combination of old elements; at worst, it’s more of the same old material. By definition, we don’t yet know anything new. It’s invisible to our ordinary eyes. We might be able to catch a glimpse with another set of eyes, with spiritual eyes, eyes that are—as it were—in the back of our heads, eyes we use while dreaming and in touch with other layers of our consciousness, or perhaps meditating, with a quiet mind.
Lisette Thooft thinks of writing as a way to stop the clock, if only for a little while.