I’ve been having some trouble with my contact lenses, and I stopped wearing them altogether a few weeks ago while waiting for a new prescription. So autumn fell into soft focus. Buildings grew halos, posters abstracted into patterned tiles, expressions became even harder to read. Sure, it was difficult to navigate — I grew to assume that most shapes wouldn’t form symbols — but I delighted in how the chandeliers folded into the ceiling and learned to recognize friends from the way they walk.
Last week, the optometrist gave me a pair of temporary lenses, and everything crystallized from wobbly-warbly into sharp relief: I could see the edges of individual leaves, uneven window panes, flecks on lamp posts where paint used to be. Now, this was delightful in a completely new way! Walking down the street, I was amazed at each grain in the sidewalk. Everything felt fresh with possibility and depth.
How far could I see? Were those lights always strung around that tree like so? How different those two neighboring rooms were, one cozy-warm and one fluorescent-violet! So many textures worn with serendipity and care!
These days, not just because of my improved prescription, I often find myself thinking about phenomenology. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on how we experience things in the world, what those experiences might reveal about the world, and the meanings we make in it. Phenomenology considers, for example, how we perceive things given social, cultural, linguistic, and biological background conditions.
Each of us has a unique phenomenological perspective. That is, we have idiosyncratic ways of experiencing the world, which shape how we think and act. But our perspectives are also constantly being constructed and revised. My dad likes desserts with pistachios, for example, so those catch my eye even when he’s not around; my professor often mentions that 20 gallons of water go into a cup of coffee, from growing beans to transportation costs, so I have begun to picture individual objects as containing their preceding actions; my friend Leticia taught me about “patina”, the patterns that objects gain with use and age, so now I notice the creases and grooves in weathered buildings and shoes. And naturally, as the way I experience the world changes, so does the way I think and act.
Therefore, when we think about the future, it’s crucial to think about phenomenology. One, because we must remember that we can’t separate ourselves from our current experiences and mental models of the world. And two, because we ought to consider more deeply how our current expectations, habits, actions, worries, and hopes shape the spaces we will inherit. Thinking about the future, then, becomes an experiment in phenomenological imagination and empathy. In doing so, it becomes clear how many diverse ways there are of seeing the world and its futures.
Recently, I started prompting friends to more concretely imagine their future perspectives by asking: What advice do you think your future self would give your current self?
I received various responses: that many big things are indeed small; that many paths lead to the same place, and one path can lead to many places; to relax; to work harder; to take a step back; to cherish interpersonal relationships; to sleep enough. (One friend stopped me when I asked. “Hold on,” he said. “If my future self is giving me advice, isn’t that what I should be doing now?” I just smiled and shrugged.)
When I tried thinking through this question, I wondered how much my future phenomenological perspective would diverge from my current one. On the one hand, I expected a lot of differences: It seems like even in the last two years, a tremendous number of questions have gripped me, equations have tested me, and colors have dazzled me. I can only imagine what else I’ll learn in classes and conversation-walks. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if I stayed mostly the same: hoping to do as much good as I can and still uncertain which axis to do it along.
Anyways, future self, here’s the advice I think you’d give me (and, in turn, my advice for you):
1. Move your brain and body in unexpected ways. Go to talks, read widely, ask questions, stop to notice a tree, take walks, see plays. Find interesting people, places, and things. Sing! Celebrate! Dance! Make music!
2. Be honest and intentional. Remember names. Give sincere compliments. Ask clarifying questions. Don’t multitask. Don’t pretend you know things you don’t.
3. Habits are important. They keep you grounded, give you boundaries, set the tone. When you keep making exceptions, that’s when the positive feedback loops begin, until you trip from one day into the next. So be deliberate. Get enough sleep. Keep your space in order. Listen to yourself. Take care. Rest your eyes.
4. Be kind, open, and thoughtful. Do good. Love deeply. Breathe. Pick up litter and lost souls. Bias toward good actions. Listen and stay humble. Give yourself enough time and space to think. Let others know that you notice when they feel cold or anxious; let others know when you need help.
5. Things are organic and wobbly. But hey. Try your best and take it easy.
Did I get any of that right?
Julie Heng ’24 is an Integrative Biology and Philosophy concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column “Future in Progress” typically appears on alternate Mondays.