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Jumping Ahead and Looking Back at the Future

By Craig K. Comstock
Section introduction in Citizen Summitry: Keeping the Peace When It Matters Too Much to be Left to Politicians (edited by Don Carlson and Craig K. Comstock, published by Tarcher/St. Martin’s Press)

There’s a well-known story I’ve always loved, about a Maine farmer who, when asked by a tourist how to get to Boston, says simply, “Can’t get there from here.” Trying to work for peace, many of us have felt the gap implied by the hayseed’s rebuff. If he’d ever been to Boston he could tell the way, of course, but to him it’s no-place—literally a “utopia.” Unless he’s just spoofing the tourist, the farmer has never even imagined his way to Boston. If he had, the tourist might craftily seek help by asking, “Well, pretend that you were in Boston: how would you get back here to the farm?”


That’s the strategy of [those willing to jump ahead and look back at the future]. First, they imagine the utopia they wish to reach: they pretend it already exists, and that we’ve somehow reached it. They pause to enjoy it. The place seems real. Instead of restricting themselves to the barnyard of our present reality, they walk in their minds along Beacon Street. Then they make a second move: given that the city exists, they say, “How did we get here?” They discover a route. The more serious they are, the more care they take to work out the way in detail.


I call this “jumping ahead and looking back at the future.” It’s usually difficult to imagine what to do tomorrow—or even worse, today—in order to move toward an abstract goal, especially if you have doubts about its practicality. A journey of a hundred miles does begin with a single step, but often the motivation arises from, and the direction is likewise set by, imagining the goal.


Vividly imaging a favorable future, as if you were already living in it, has several benefits. You have an opportunity to discover what you most desire, in the way you enjoy the plot of a novel rather than in the way you may admire an abstract proposal. And since you feel as if you’re already living there, instead of worrying about its practicality, your mind automatically acts as if a way exists from where you actually are to the place you’re imagining. “Of course you can get here from there,” it says….

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