Once there was a Chinese farmer who had a horse that he would tend his crops with every morning. One day, out of the blue, the horse ran off. All the villagers approached the farmer and offered their sympathies. “My! What bad luck you’ve had,” they echoed. “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see tomorrow,” replied the farmer.
The next day the horse returned and it brought with it seven wild horses. “You’re so fortunate!” the villagers exclaimed. “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see tomorrow,” replied the farmer.
The next day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of these wild horses. He was bucked off and broke his leg. “Oh, that’s too bad,” the villagers cried. “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see tomorrow,” replied the farmer.
The next day, government officials traveled to the village and drafted young men for a gruesome war that was going on. The farmer’s son, with his broken leg, was rejected from the draft. “Oh wow! Isn’t that great?” The villagers asked.
The farmer yet again, replied, “We’ll see tomorrow.” The message of this parable is simple. Nothing is permanent and tomorrow always brings with it new possibilities, whether good or bad.
But first, what exactly is tomorrow? For some, it is quite literally the day after today. For others, it invokes the idea of a near-distant future where everything is possible. We hear this in many forms. “The Sun will come out tomorrow”, “it’ll get better tomorrow”, “tomorrow is a new day”. For many, tomorrow is a symbol of hope. The hope that we’ll have the opportunity to do it all again. That our circumstances can improve. That we can be better.
In the 1990s, American psychologist Charles Snyder developed the Hope Theory. In this, he defined hope as the “capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways.” But he also defined hope as “rainbows in the mind.”
Because hope is just that. It’s our ability to long for a rainbow in the midst of a rainstorm, the light show in the sky that requires the perfect combination of atmospheric conditions to shine. Logically, they seem impossible. Yet during every storm, we still look out our windows with the hope that we’ll catch a glimpse of one.
But, how do we form rainbows in the mind? Do they also require such perfect and fleeting conditions? And must they be preceded by violent storms? According to Snyder’s theory, there are four main ingredients for hope. The first is the creation of goals. Our mind must have a goal so it knows what to strive for. Second, our subconscious then needs to form pathways to reach those goals. It’s one thing to want to go to the bottom of the ocean and another to think, “I’m going to get a job on a submarine so I can get there.” This kind of mind mapping is referred to as a pathway thought. The third is agency thoughts. These mark our ability to take agency and self-motivate toward our goals. This is the most critical aspect of Hope Theory. It represents our inspiration to ignore our present desires and needs for the future and what we hope it will or will not be. Fundamentally, it is hope in action.
Some modern philosophers feel that Hope Theory ends here. But if you’ve ever pursued anything that you’ve been hopeful for, you know that things hardly ever go as planned. That’s where Snyder’s fourth pillar, barriers, comes into play. These are the external forces that cause adversity. These are the rainstorms in which we hope for the rainbows. The times when we lose our horse and hope it comes back with seven more the next day.
The promise of tomorrow is a powerful tool. It inspires optimism and self-esteem. It allows us to believe in the best and settle for nothing less than we think we deserve. These are both critical components to living a fulfilled life. And yet, we wonder, does the promise of the future stop us from living in the present?
We’ve all heard the new age philosophies that echo ideologies like “stay present”, or the pop culture acronym YOLO: you only live once. But the idea is nothing new. In the 4th century BCE, Aristippus of Cyrene, a student of Socrates, created a school of thought that philosophers call hedonism. At its core, hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Aristippus believed that the only course worth pursuing is the one that brings you pleasure. It's living for today without worrying about what tomorrow might have waiting for you. It’s rejoicing in the seven wild horses you see today, without worrying that your son might fall off them tomorrow.
In a modern society that’s so focused on living for the future, saving for retirement, climbing corporate ladders and paying it forward, it’s no surprise that this way of thinking has developed some negative connotations. Lush, glutton, self-indulgent, excessive. These are all modern synonyms to a school of thought that is simply focused on living happily. And isn’t that what we all want? To live happily ever after? Yet, hedonism is feared. Because with so much pleasure and indulgence today, what can be left for tomorrow? What can be saved for a rainy day?
But the sad reality is, what if you never make it to tomorrow? In the words of Buddha, “The trouble is you think you have time.” The promise of the future is great sometimes, but other times, it’s a haunting sentiment that prevents us from doing everything we want or should be doing, in the hope that there’s still time for us to do it in the future. And this is perfectly captured in the phrase: “Someday, I will…”
Someday, I’ll sail around the world…
Someday, I’ll write a book…
Someday, I’ll learn to speak another language…
But what if today is all we have? The Latin expression carpe diem inspires people to seize the day and give little thought to tomorrow. To make the most of it. To take advantage of it. Because the reality is, as much as we can hope for the rainbows, all we have now are rainstorms. So why don’t we make the most of that while it’s here? Today really is the only day we’ll ever have. Tomorrow might never come and if it does, by the time it gets to us, it will just be another today. It’s an interesting premise to wrap your mind around. And it reiterates the idea that all we really have is this present moment.
“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Which is to say that we don’t know what lies in the promise of tomorrow and we can’t quite make sense of today’s events until we’ve lived through them. Our life is fortunately made richer by things we experience – both the good and the bad. And, as we know, our curses today could be our blessings the next.
“Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see tomorrow.”
However, as much as today is all we have, the promise of the future is still important, especially for human life. Because in the end, tomorrow might come, and we would be thankful we prepared for it. This is why we apply for our dream jobs and open savings accounts. We wash the dishes and do our laundry, we plant seeds and water the garden. Because as much as the future is not promised, believing that it is is essential for a healthy life.
There’s an Igbo adage that translates to “tomorrow is pregnant”. Which is to say, we don’t know what it will give birth to. And that’s just it. Tomorrow can promise great opportunities, but we don’t know if it lied. And even if it didn’t, we don’t know if it will deliver on these promises.
In Stoicism, it’s preached that people should prepare for the worst and hope for the best. And oftentimes this is exactly what we find ourselves doing. We hope that no one will attempt to open our door in the middle of the night, but we lock it anyway. As we should. We have smoke detectors and emergency evacuation routes. Because while we don’t ever want to be in those situations, we can’t count on it. Disasters happen. So, we prepare, because we have to. And other animals do too.
Originally it was believed that mental time travel was absent from the animal kingdom. That humans were the only ones who could recall the past or plan for the future. Migratory animals head south for the winter out of innate instincts, not preparation. And the same is true for hibernating animals that burrow as an evolutionary response. These findings made us believe that animals were incapable of preparing for the future and that they didn’t learn from the past, either. That they simply react to present circumstances via sheer instincts. However, recent studies have revealed something different.
The scrub jay, a bird native to the northwest United States, has been proven to plan for the future. A 2007 study focusing on this bird debunked the idea that humans were the only animals to prepare for the future. Researchers observed these birds reserving portions of their preferred food sources when it was unlikely that it would be available tomorrow. They were basically meal prepping. They were acting independently of their current emotional state and immediate needs, and thought of their future selves instead.
In a 2019 study, this was further explored by a group of scientists who observed orangutans in captivity. The primates were given a choice between an easily accessible food and a tool that they could use to retrieve another food source. They found that the orangutans made profitable decisions relative to reward quality. Which is to say, they chose their preferred food. They picked the option that would give them more of what they wanted. Sometimes that meant opting for less work, but other times it meant taking the tool on the promise that it would provide them with the food that they really wanted. They ignored their present needs for something better. Which makes us wonder, do our primate cousins also buy into the hope of tomorrow? Or is that trait uniquely human?
But more importantly, can we continue to believe in the future promised to us by tomorrow? Or, do we need to start living for today? We might never know for sure, because in the end, “we’ll see tomorrow.”