Why is it so hard to stop worrying and smell the roses? Why do we struggle to take the advice of Jesus, who said: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”

To see why worry is so difficult to escape, we need to examine what makes worry possible in the first place. Worry originates in our ability to imagine the future. The ability to imagine the future is an essential part of who we are as humans – it’s a defining strength, but also a defining vulnerability. 

Why should imagination be considered a strength? How do we benefit from the power to anticipate, fantasize, or mentally explore a situation that might arise sometime later – in an hour, a month, a decade? Of course, we gain the chance to prepare for that situation, and to take actions now that might improve the outcome. When our capacity to envision the future serves as a benefit, we call it “foresight.” 

Popular wisdom is full of praise for the virtue of foresight. “Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.” Those are the words of Sun Tzu. “The future depends on what you do today.” That’s from Gandhi. “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” That’s Malcolm X. “The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time.” That’s William S. Burroughs inadvertently echoing Proverbs 27:12, where it is written, “A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions.” Henry Ford, who knew something about business, said “Patience and foresight are the two most important qualities in business,” and Theodore Roosevelt said that foresight is “the one characteristic more essential than any other” for a growing nation. We’ve all heard that “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” The same idea was put in positive form by Amelia Barr, who said, “Forethought spares afterthought” and by Alexander Graham Bell, who said, “Preparation is the key to success.” 

But the act of imagining the future has a downside too – it’s not always helpful. Our ability to envision “tomorrow” opens the door for tomorrow’s pain to hurt us today. Although we might be insulated from some future hardship by a buffer of time – by the padding of days, months, or years – we can still suffer from that hardship early. Our imagination easily defeats the “insulation” of time, transporting that hardship to the present – and this is true regardless of whether the anticipated hardship is actually going to happen or not. All that matters is that we think it might. The power to imagine the future makes us vulnerable to predictions – some false, others unchangeably true – that consume our attention, distracting us from the demands and opportunities of the present moment. 

The same capacity of seeing ahead – the same talent that allows for planning and preparation – also gets in the way of presence. Our great strength is also our Achilles heel. When this power of seeing ahead backfires on us, causing stress without providing any benefit in exchange, we don’t call it foresight anymore – instead we call it “worry” – that’s the evil twin of foresight – and we wish we could be rid of it. 

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.” That quote is often attributed to Mark Twain. “Never worry about your heart till it stops beating.” That’s E. B. White quoting his neighbor. “A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.” That’s Aesop. “Every man’s life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain,” that’s Marcus Aurelius, whose sentiment was echoed centuries later by Mother Teresa: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today.” Jane Austen, writing in Emma, asks, “Why not seize the pleasure at once? – How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!” And we heard from Jesus at the outset of this essay: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)  

Listening to popular aphorisms, we’re told we should cultivate foresight – always looking ahead to the future – but we should also cultivate presence – casting worry aside and embracing the here and now. But we can’t do both at once. 

As we go through our lives, we are called to switch between two contradictory stances toward the future. On the one hand, we must try to know the future – to look into its face – to reach towards it – to ready ourselves for it. But we must sense when this concern for the future has gone too far, beyond utility, and then we must retreat and stop being so concerned, so curious. We must trade our binoculars for blindfolds. Indeed, we must shield ourselves from the daunting burden of the future, the overwhelming complexity of the future, the blinding flame of the future. At times, we must deliberately ignore that flame – block it out – turn away from it – choose not to think about it or try to see it, so that we can appreciate the present, as if inside the safety of a cocoon. But when that cocoon becomes too restrictive, too limiting, again we must emerge from it and stare at what lies beyond.

How should we find the right balance between these two stances – cultivating foresight – planning, preparing, looking ahead, on the one hand, and on the other hand cultivating presence – embracing the moment, living in the here and now, casting worry aside? How do we balance a concern for what might happen next with a concern for what’s happening now? 

If we could limit our future-imagining to the useful kind – foresight – and eliminate the useless kind – worry – that would be ideal, right? If, whenever we looked ahead, we could practice this anticipation only in a way that led to productive action, that would be good, right? But we’re not ideal beings, and we can’t always estimate what degree of forethought is necessary and what degree is needless before the future actually arrives. How much attention does an upcoming challenge deserve? How closely must we think through an expected situation to be ready for it? It’s all a guess. 

Turning away from the future in favor of the present comes with a paradox too, for it is our awareness of the future – the fact that change is imminent and everything will end – that allows us to appreciate what we have right now. Without keeping the future in mind, we might not experience the present as fully. Indeed, one way of experiencing the present – one way of spending time and connecting with other people – is to work together on planning.

As for cultivating a balance between future-focus and present-focus, most of the time we just wing it, using binoculars sometimes, wearing blindfolds other times, and hoping we’re doing enough of both. But there’s no guarantee that a happy equilibrium will arise. As we muddle through life, it’s common to find that we’re worrying more than we’d like, and yet when we try to heed Jesus’ advice “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow” we find it impossible. We’re not exercising as much foresight as we’d like, nor as much presence; rather we’re worrying too much, then deadening our worries with substances, diversions, and distractions.

Again we might ask, why is worry so hard to overcome? We’ve seen that worry comes from the same place as something good and necessary. If we want to be ready for the future, we have to invoke our capacity to imagine the future, and when we emphasize that capacity, worry is an unavoidable byproduct. If we’re thinking a lot about tomorrow, which we might need to do, sometimes we can’t help but “borrow trouble from tomorrow.”

But a deeper reason why worry is so hard to overcome is that when we disengage from imagining the future – when we aim for presence instead of foresight – we have to work against the training, the feedback, the reinforcement that we’ve been receiving throughout our entire lives.

We might suppose that foresight and presence are equally important – two necessary stances that any person must know how to assume – but our society is obsessed with foresight, not with presence. There’s an imbalance in the feedback that comes our way when we exhibit these differing qualities. Foresight gets the feedback – it wins praise and recognition, while presence is invisible and unnoticed. 

A civilization that brought the specter of nuclear annihilation and catastrophic climate change upon itself might not seem like a civilization that is obsessed with foresight. Indeed if we’re taking a macroscopic perspective, we might say that an insane disregard for the future is the defining quality of our civilization. But just because we are building weapons that could destroy life on our planet and pumping carbon into the atmosphere in a way that’s upending the delicate balance we require for survival, we can still be obsessed with foresight on a microscopic level. We still revere the ability to see a few steps ahead in our everyday affairs. We still value foresight in daily life more than we value the ability to shield ourselves from what lies ahead so that we can fully inhabit the here and now.

Think about it: “She’s always prepared” is one of the biggest compliments that could be made about someone in a professional capacity. The debater who comes ready with a response to any argument is the one who wins. The salesperson who anticipates our questions is the one we buy from. To get a job as a columnist you have to show that you know more about the future than the average person. To be a successful business leader you have to foresee what your competitors might do and what your customers might want. To be a successful venture capitalist you have to foresee what markets might emerge and what businesses might succeed. To be a respected real-estate agent you have to know which neighborhoods and which properties will turn out to be good investments. To be respected as a physician you have to be able to foresee the health consequences of taking this medication or eating this diet or receiving this therapy as opposed to that other one. To be a good quarterback you have to anticipate the other team’s strategy. To be a good goalie you have to predict where the ball or the puck is going to go. To be a warrior you have to foresee the enemy’s next move. To set up shop as a psychic, you need to convince clients that you are gifted with a clairvoyance that they do not possess. To succeed as a professional chef, you need to master “mise en place” – the methodical preparation of ingredients prior to cooking, and the ability to foresee how a certain combination of ingredients is going to work out. To have a comfortable retirement, you need to save money decades in advance. To have a productive day, you need to put your tasks on the calendar, to know what you’re going to do and when.

Everywhere, we hear the message, and experience the reality that planning and preparation are the way to get a leg up. Being ready for opportunities is the key to getting ahead. Foresight is the way to stand out. Future-mindedness is the path to being successful and distinguished. In Proverbs 21:5 we hear “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” 

Because foresight is so practically valuable, it is also a way of gaining attention and prestige. If you say “Listen to me!” and a crowd asks “Why?” your answer might be some form of “Because I know what’s going to happen next!” To be able to see a few steps further into the future than the people around you makes you “smart” or “well-informed” or “in-the-know” or “someone to listen to” or “a prophet.” We compete for attention by trying to convince each other that we’re the best fortune-teller of the lot – we’re the one who can be trusted to foresee how events will unfold. Foresight is so precious, practically and socially, that we covet it, we grasp for it, we become attached to possessing it, accumulating it, hoarding it, and showing it off.

What happens when we lack foresight – when we don’t sufficiently think ahead – when we don’t spend enough time visualizing the future and trying to know it and be ready for it? What kind of external feedback then comes our way?

If we’re late for a business meeting because we didn’t plan for traffic, we might be called “unreliable,” or “undependable,” or “disorganized.” If we don’t know how to answer a question on a test because we didn’t study enough in advance, we lose points and give up our chance to be at the top of the class. If we didn’t bring a raincoat because we weren’t thinking it could rain, we get soaked. If we drink too much because we weren’t thinking about how we’d feel the next day, we suffer a hangover. If we smoke, overeat, and fail to exercise because we’re not planning ahead for our health, then someday we get bad news from the doctor. If we write software without anticipating edge cases and exceptions that could arise, our system might crash in production. If we spend more money than we should because we’re not anticipating our upcoming bills, we might go bankrupt. If we launch a business project that falls behind schedule and goes over budget, we won’t get a promotion.

When we fail to look ahead, we’re known as “shortsighted,” or “myopic,” or simply “dumb.” If we often try to look ahead but we’re not good at it, if we’re not adept at prediction, if we’re not accurate with our projections, we become known as unreliable, untrustworthy: “He’s always off the mark.” If we’re always getting the future wrong, we lose our claim to other people’s attention. They feel free to ignore us because our assertions are of no consequence. We open ourselves to ridicule, as Jesus observed in Luke 14:28: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” 

What’s the flipside of all this? When do we ever receive positive feedback for deliberately not thinking ahead? When does praise ever come our way for choosing presence over future-mindedness? When do we ever refrain from planning and get told we did the right thing? When do we ever eschew worry and get told that we’ve made the best decision? If we follow the advice, “Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you,” when would anyone notice and salute us for it? When are we ever considered wise for not making predictions? When does anyone admire us for the skill of wearing blindfolds to shield ourselves from the distracting glare of the future? When is it acknowledged as good and worthwhile to treat time as a buffer that insulates us from the future? When is it ever considered virtuous to say, “I don’t have to worry about it yet, so I won’t”?

Would a companion ever say “I really appreciate how present you were able to be in our walk along the beach because you weren’t thinking about sea-level rise, coastal flooding, and the existential threat of climate change at that moment”? Would a friend ever tell you, “I know you have a root canal coming up next week but congratulations on not being preoccupied with future dental work right now so we can enjoy these cheeseburgers together.”

When we choose not to worry about the future, not to look ahead, not to predict what’s going to happen next – and when we do this for a good reason: so that we can fully participate in the here and now – this is often an invisible choice, a hidden choice that affects our inner experience alone. Perhaps no one knows what we’re choosing to not think about. No one knows of all the worries that we’ve successfully put out of our mind. 

There are planning awards. There are no “presence” awards. We can win acclaim for showing that we’re good at predicting the future. But when would we ever be praised for intentionally disengaging from the future, calming down, relaxing, stretching, taking a deep breath, smelling the roses? That’s just good for us if we can squeeze it in. Our high school yearbook is probably the last time we’ve seen any of our peers celebrated in print as “most laid back” or “most chill,” or “most in-the-moment.”

When we fail to plan, when we show up late and unprepared, there’s lots of negative feedback that comes our way, and rightly so. But what negative feedback do we receive for failing to embrace the moment, failing to manifest presence? “Relax, calm down, you’re worrying too much!” Quite likely, we’ve received feedback like that during our more stressful moments. But no one can really demand that we relax, they can only suggest it. No one can require that we appreciate the present moment, in the same way they can complain when we’re unprepared and they can demand that we think further ahead.

And when someone is overprepared, when someone takes too many precautions, when someone studies too hard for a test or practices too hard for a tennis game or buys more travel insurance than they really need or packs too many supplies in their suitcase, we can smile at it, we can suggest that they chill out, but in the end, we let it go, give it a pass. While bad planning on a friend’s or coworker’s part might harm us too, and it might be a valid reason for us to complain, the same is less often true with overpreparation, which is more likely harmless, perhaps even helpful. If someone chooses to overprepare, well, that’s their prerogative.  

Where does this leave us? We know that two things are true. Foresight is good, and presence is good. It’s good to think ahead, and it’s good to embrace the here and now. But there’s an imbalance in the kind of feedback that comes our way from taking these two attitudes. One attitude is constantly being reinforced and the other is often being ignored, going unnoticed because it is an internal choice, whose benefits are known to us alone. Success in life is supposed to come from constantly thinking ahead, whereas the happiness we find from being “present” is evident only to us and it’s the result of an inner decision that’s invisible to others.

It’s as if we’re all telling each other, all the time: “Predict! Plan! Prepare! Can’t you see what’s going to happen if you do that? Why didn’t you plan for this? Didn’t you know you’d be in this situation? What are you doing to get ready? Predict! See ahead! Think further into the future! Get ready! Aren’t you glad you planned for this? Now plan some more!”

What this means is that when we want to be present, when we want to temporarily disengage from looking ahead, we have to work against a deeply ingrained habit, a pattern of future-oriented thinking that is constantly being reinforced and rewarded. If something’s wrong with our lives, surely it’s a result of not planning. Surely we can fix it by being more disciplined and strategic. Surely we need more foresight, not less. “Do your planning and prepare your fields before building your house.” (Proverbs 24:27) 

Of course, we can escape our bias toward future-mindedness. We can find presence in any activity that engages us fully – playing a sport, watching a movie, having sex, working through a math problem. We can find presence in meditation. We can go on vacation. And we can deaden our future-anxiety by drinking, taking drugs, seeking thrills, or losing ourselves in work.

But what happens when we try to cultivate presence without a structured activity or context that makes it OK? What happens when we’re feeling anxious about the future, and we’d like to stop worrying, but we’d prefer to do this cleanly and simply, without substituting a distraction in place of our worry?

That’s where we run into trouble, because we’re going against a lifetime of training, perhaps a lifetime of feeling guilty about all those times when we weren’t sufficiently prepared, when we didn’t think far enough ahead, when we suffered from a lack of foresight, when we concluded that more preparation – not less – is what would make things better next time.  That’s where it’s easy to think we don’t have the “right” or the license to relax until we’ve figured things out and gotten all our affairs in order, which is going to be never. That’s where we might grapple with the stigma that people who “aren’t thinking about the future” are the ones who are doing irresponsible things like taking dangerous drugs or polluting or racking up debt on their credit cards that they can’t repay, and we don’t want to be one of those negligent people. That’s where we might grapple with the awareness that humanity has brought disaster on itself by not caring for its future, not planning for sustainability, not taking action to reduce carbon emissions when the first warnings were sounded, and that what we need as a species is more future-mindedness, not less. “A stitch in time saves nine.”

To really relax, smell the roses, and be present requires more than a positive step of embracing the sensations and nuances of our current experience. It’s also requires negative step, a willingness to not do certain things we’re conditioned to always do, certain things we believe we need to do more of. 

To really embrace an attitude of presence, we might need to get comfortable with statements like these:

  • I am not aiming to know how things will turn out

  • I’m not trying to predict, anticipate, or plan anything right now

  • I’m not thinking about what might happen in one hour or one year

  • I am not aiming to influence or change any future event

  • I am not thinking about how to avoid any future difficulty or solve any upcoming problem

  • I am not trying to decide in advance how I will make any upcoming choice

  • I am not sketching out what I am going to do tomorrow or later in my life

  • I am not looking for ideas or suggestions on how to make the rest of my day better

  • I am not trying to visualize how anything plays out

  • I am not looking to grow or be better right now

  • I am not looking to improve my readiness for anything that’s coming up

  • I am not steeling myself for any future hardship

  • I am not searching for insight on any situation that will help me guess its outcome

  • I am not trying to improve, fix, or solve anything right now

  • I am not regretting any past failure to plan or prepare, right now

  • I am not thinking about ways to improve the direction of my life, my community, or society at large right now

When do we give ourselves permission to take this attitude without feeling it’s shortsighted and wrong? When do we acknowledge that ignoring the future temporarily is useful for our health and mental wellbeing? If we meditate, perhaps that’s our time. If we drink, maybe that’s our time, when we’re pouring a glass of beer. If we take long walks on the beach, maybe that’s our time, when we’re feeling the wet sand on our feet and listening to the waves crash. But are we able to take this attitude without a situational aid or crutch that makes it OK? Are we able to do it simply because we realize we’re worrying too much and we’d like to find a few moments of relief?

Perhaps what is missing from our mental arsenal is the idea of “ignoring the future” as a deliberate, respectable technique that we should employ – from time to time – in the interest of health and productivity. Perhaps what’s missing is the idea of “wearing blindfolds” as a useful and valuable behavior, not always a sign of ignorance, laziness, or immaturity. Perhaps what’s missing is the idea that when someone says “I don’t have to worry about it yet, so I’m going to ignore it” they are not necessarily procrastinating or living in denial – they might be practicing a healthy and effective coping strategy. The fact that this strategy can be overused and misused doesn’t mean it’s always being used in a detrimental way. Maybe it deserves a bit more respect. Perhaps the ability to block out the future has just as much value as the ability to foresee the future, and we should in fact cultivate both abilities.

If we accept that our capacity to imagine the future is powerful, and that this power has a consequence – it allows the pain of the future to affect us in the present – then we should also accept that we’d need some shielding from the future’s influence on us. We should accept that we’d need tools to help us disentangle ourselves from the phenomenon of worry. Tools to shield ourselves from the projectiles of the future flying through the open window of our imagination, like space junk.

We wear sweaters to insulate ourselves from cold weather. We wear sunglasses to shield our eyes on a bright day. We depend on roofs to keep the rain from hitting us. These are prudent things to do, as long as we don’t wear the same sweater all year or never take our sunglasses off or refuse to go outdoors. So why can’t it also be prudent and wise to use tools – mental tools – to shelter ourselves from the future, as long as we’re not seeking that shelter all the time? The important point is that this shelter, this insulation, this barrier is not permanent. It’s temporary, used in pursuit of calm, rest, refreshment, just like we sleep at night, then wake up and go about the day.

Planning for our own health and wellbeing is perhaps the most important kind of planning we can do. But to be well, to keep ourselves from growing sick with worry, we need to know how to retreat from a future-oriented mindset, to relinquish our obsession with trying to know or see what happens next, to cultivate presence with the same dedication as we cultivate foresight. To prepare for the future, we need to get good at taking breaks from preparing. ■

Comments ༄