Remembrance of things that have not yet come to pass

The general framework of thinking from a future endpoint backwards to the present seems to be a particularly useful method. For example, it is a useful trick for solving problems in game theory and other puzzles, as well as for goal visualization, project planning, etc. However, it’s become less and less clear to me that this way of thinking is necessarily the correct way to think about how to live one’s life. That is, the notion that we should live our lives such that we would be proud of what we’ve done while in our deathbed seems to me not quite correct.

I believe that we tend to overestimate the reliability of our own memories. Having seen my best friend battle brain cancer, and especially the last few months where he lost the ability to form long-term memories, it’s hard for me to hold to the belief that only those things that we remember are meaningful. Were the last couple months of his life not meaningful just because he wouldn’t have been able to remember them? Or, in the limit, does our mortality mean that all our actions are ultimately meaningless?

Why should a moment before death have any special privilege for us who are alive?

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he makes an interesting observation that one useful separation is between our “remembering mind” and our “experiencing mind”. Insightfully, it is our remembering mind that provides our basis for decision making, but it is our experiencing mind that has to live each and every moment, including the consequences of our decisions. That is to say, the basis for our actions is not identical to our experience of them, and what we remember of events is not the same as our contemporary experience of them.

A scenario he posits: suppose you were able to go on an amazing vacation, but at the end of it, all memories you had of it were wiped out. Was the vacation still worthwhile? How much would one pay for such a vacation? Certainly, a great deal less than one where memories could be formed.

Or: suppose someone lived a very pleasant and happy life for many years, but the last year of that person’s life was extremely miserable and full of suffering. How do we compare that to someone else who maybe had a very bland, or maybe just somewhat unpleasant, life their entire lifetime?

It seems to make some sense that we might think, if we were able to have the appropriate scale, that we should be able to just integrate under the curve of happiness, and that would be the correct basis assessing the overall happiness of one’s life. But given our temporal and psychological biases, that’s clearly not how we think. A very long period of constant happiness (or constant suffering) is likely to be forgotten or tempered in our retrospection.

But maybe we should be thinking this way a little more. It seems like we can’t just simply “work our way backwards” if our memory faculty is imperfect. We might believe that we remember things rightly, but it seems quite evident that we objectively do not. And so I’d like to believe, and put forth here, that even if my late friend couldn’t remember the Stanford vs. Washington football game we went to a few weeks before he passed away, it was still experientially meaningful to him at that point in time, and even so after all of us are far in our graves. That moment happened, it exists, and it will continue to be. And so with every moment.

Ultimately, I think the correct prescription about how to live our lives will be a combination of the two. Both how we would look back at our actions when we are on our deathbed, but also what it would look like if all these actions and experiences were compiled in a streaming, unedited biography.

This mix of thinking about the present experience as well as the future implications perhaps has some strange parallelism to the life-cycle theory of consumption in economics. That is, we should be thinking about our lives throughout the cycle, not just in single points of time such as the present or during our last breath. We must simultaneously take consideration to both our present selves and our future selves in order to optimize our decision making. And we must also acknowledge that some moments in the future — particularly powerful moments of retrospection — deserve to be weighted more than others. There must be a balance between caring towards the future and the hedonism of the present. Insofar that our experiences represent a core conception of who we are, then we must take care that our perceptions and our memories of them remain as true as possible.