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Past Imperfect, Future Tense

“I’ve got to do it.”

“Okay. But you hate the outdoors, your sense of balance could be sponsored by Special Brew, you think the people who do do it are tossers and you’re petrified of water.” I said, encouragingly.

“I know, but I’ve got to take a punt…,” Tom said, “out… just once.”

Cushy Punt

Even though just thinking about it was making him palpitate, and was inducing a sweaty fit of heavy breathing, Tom (name changed to protect the libellous) insisted, on pushing the boat out… with a long pole. We were at uni, it was the summer term of our last year, and the river was filled with a bunch of Pimms fuelled punts (partial homophone intended).

It would be unfair to call Tom bookish; there was no “ish” about his total bookness. In fact he’d been locked in the library several times because he was so engrossed at closing time, and so much a part of the place, the staff missed him. And Tom feared water in the same way a collection of paper and cardboard might.

So what would drive a man, who took a cagoule and rape alarm with him to pop to the shop for milk, to take his life in his hands propelling a flat-bottomed boat?

I’ll tell you what. Metameleiaphobia. The fear of regret. Or, as Tom explained it, “I don’t want to look back at my days here and regret not having had the full experience.” Even if that experience induced unforgettable terror.

Metameleiaphobia. It’s amazing that that word doesn’t already exist because it’s definitely a thing, and a life meme. It doesn’t just drive the mid-life crisis, it misinforms some really appalling decision making people seek pointless other opinions purely so they won’t have to shoulder all the blame should things go wrong. Looking forward to looking back.

It’s not FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), even if that might embrace it, because it’s explicitly fearing a future in which you will look back and admonish yourself.

It’s totally irrational and an intrinsic component of aging. Marianne Faithfull invoked it perfectly in her cautionary Ballad of Lucy Jordan: “At the age of thirty-seven she realised she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.” Watch out, she sang, or you’ll end up like Lucy; who climbs up on her roof and, depending on how you read it, either is carted off to an insane asylum or is led to the after-life where she finally gets to smell le croissant in her Alfa Spider before it’s over-turned and burned by the gilet-jaune.

We will all experience moments in our lives where we have to make life-changing decisions. But for many of us, somewhere in the mental pros and cons, there will be a picture of our own, older, brooding selves, unsatisfied and unable to change the past because of the decision we’re making now.

It’s oddly powerful. In a WWI recruitment poster a child sits on her father’s knee and, basically, tells him he’s a sissy. “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” The father gulps. At first this seems rather niche; appealing to that group of young men who have such an impressive imagination they fear a possibly embarrassing question coming up sometime in the future in a family they may or may not help produce. But it worked. It is a defining image of persuasive advertising and sent thousands of men to face death and shellshock rather than an imaginary red-faced, somewhat insensitive, kid who may never exist, demanding answers to an awkward question.

As a rhetorical conceit it seems bizarre: a call for action not based on the here and now but by how you may feel about it, at some time in the future.

There’s a current twitter meme that exploits the same technique from the other side.

It’s pretty clever. It, at once, draws parallels of historical significance to today’s events, makes it personal, and flatters those who stood/stand up to the establishment even if it meant/means great personal risk.

Just a few weeks ago, Michael Heseltine invoked metameleiaphobia to reassure the million Remainers who marched to oppose Brexit. “We are on the right side of history,” he intoned. “Walk tall. Keep the faith. Go back to your villages, your towns and your cities. Tell them you were here… Fighting for our tomorrow.” Considering history is mostly the deeds of the dead, is being on its “right side” somewhere actually good to be?

Still, going down in history is clearly the impulse for many of our Brexit agitators. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History arguing that, following the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, humanity was reaching “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. This was seized by the burgeoning “New Labour” as a prophetic confirmation of their political ambitions.

Oh how we can laugh now, that things were so settled that someone could even suggest it. It’s almost as if a generation of legacy hungry politicians took it as a challenge to jump start history and all the ideological conflicts that take us right back to square one. The future wasn’t quite what anybody expected. It never is.

“We plan, God laughs,” says the Yiddish proverb. Any imagined future is a chimera. The anxiety of imagining yourself in a future looking back and regretting the now is a fallacy because, if nothing else, you will be unimaginably different; a being that your present self cannot even fathom. Your brain will only become more decayed, a million experiences will drown out the moments you may regret and maybe your future self will just learn to trust and put up with the instincts of your past.

Tom did go to the boathouse in a blazer and straw hat, he brought a girl he fancied, a hamper and a few bottles of ready mixed Pimms. He rented the punt and got within two feet of the water before bottling it, resorting to a boozy picnic in a meadow that ended with a snog and some grassy entanglement. And now? Does he regret not having had that full experience? “You know what,” he tells me, “if I had done it, I think I’d just be looking back now and wondering: why the hell did I put myself through that? I hated every minute.”
A version of this article first appeared in print in