“Hauntology,” simply defined, means “nostalgia for lost futures.” But what is the word for fear of potential futures? The word I am looking for is not “anxiety.” “Anxiety” is used colloquially for outcomes that will be known soon: test results, flight departures, final scores, etc. It feels like a more grandiose word is needed for anxiety about things both more impactful and further away. “Anxiety” feels out of place, even incorrect, in a sentence like: “I am anxious about the potential arrival, and subsequent outcome, of a military conflict between China and the West in the centuries to come.” It is not that I’m anxious about this possible future so much as I am haunted by it. Futures can haunt, after all. Recall that the final spirit in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Until something better comes along to fill this lexical gap, I am dubbing it timorous futurae. It is an abysmal feeling. While anxious people often break out into hives, sweat, or get fidgety, timorous futurae just leaves you depressed (And this considerable difference in side effects is another reason the sensation deserves its own name.). It is a feeling I have been getting more and more often these last few years. Not about geopolitics or Donald Trump though—but I do, for the record, worry about China’s rise.
My timorous futurae is more personal than all that. It hits me most often when I go out to watch a movie by myself. Before the lights go dark I’ll take a look around at who else made it out, and I’ll see a guy on his own, just a few years older than me. While still technically a millennial, like me, he’s crossed an important line: the thirty-year mark. I am still only 25. Sure, I don’t have a stable career path, a house, a girlfriend/wife, or children—but there’s still time. It’s the twenty-first century, lots of people don’t get any of that until the second half of their twenties. But this guy blew it. He’s 32 or 33, and at this indie movie theater all alone just like me. Now that’s pathetic. He should have a wife/girlfriend in tow, or be at home with the family asking when the last time he got to go out on a Saturday was.
The trouble is, the guy is a lot like me. Our sense of style is similar, from the sneakers to the cap. He wanted to see You Were Never Really Here on the big screen as much as I did—that is to say, enough to go it alone. With just a glance, I know he and I could talk for hours about not just movies, but music and fiction too. I am sure of this because, every now and again, it happens. Not so much at the movies, but at house parties or concerts. I’ll start chatting up a guy whose hipster credentials are just as buffed up as mine, only he’s seven years older than me. We always get along, and he always tells me about what it was like to be able to smoke in bars and fear getting drafted for the Iraq War. The conversations are always great, finding people to talk with about cultural exotica is a rare blessing—but then there’s that timorous futurae.
What if I don’t make it, the way he didn’t? How many more failed romances do I have to have before it’ll be obvious that it’s just never going to work out? I wonder what it’ll feel like to hit 31, work at a punk record store, and know that this is it. Sometimes I want to ask him if there was a particular moment when he realized there was nothing better was on the horizon, that his particular eccentricities would always keep him from a lasting relationship or a fulfilling career. Maybe he could give me advice on how to keep it from happening if I could just muster the courage to ask.
I have known a few guys like this fairly well. Make no mistake, his life is a sad one. You go to his house so he can show off his record collection or shoebox of ticket stubs. It’s cool that he’s got Dinosaur Jr. releases from back when they were just Dinosaur. The trouble is, that’s all he’s got. He doesn’t live with anyone he can share it with—that’s why he’s hanging out with you. Then you go out to a bar where he promises to pick up the tab because he’s got more money than you. There he tells you a cool story about seeing A.R.E. Weapons when Ryan Noel was still alive and you feel honored to know him. Then he tells you about his long line of ex-girlfriends, each story sadder than the next.
It’s all too much. You ask yourself: Am I this guy? Are the next seven years of toil and heartbreak going to end here? Does it even end? What happened to this guy’s ghost of Christmas future? Is he now rocking out alone to Gen X garbage that kids these days don’t even know by reference? Is he unconsciously choosing to meet up with the opioid overdose and suicide-thinned herd of his 40-something buddies at divey watering holes because he knows, bereft of the last vestiges of their youthful looks, they’d stick out as the wrinkled, beer-gutted should-be dad’s they are at any house party or club worth a damn?
I really might be next. It is hard to see why not. While I’m too young to have a collection of CDs or records worthy of boast, I have hundreds of books and movies. I used to work at an indie video store, and I read The Baffler. Rest assured, I have passionate opinions about musical esoterica and films next to nobody has heard of. Want to argue about Chekov’s gun? Because I can happily oblige. The signs are all there. I’ve got time though, it’s not so bad. I just have make sure the timorous futurae doesn’t set in.