Protest the future, redeem the present

Midlife protest - collage by Anna Patton
Collage, 6 July

In ‘Midlife: A philosophical guide’ MIT professor Kieran Setiya seeks answers to the doubts and fears of his own mid-30s from philosophy. He teases apart the reasons that so many people struggle with this stage of life, and how to start shifting your thinking so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.

When I read it a couple of months ago – presumably buying books about midlife crises is among its symptoms – I found plenty to think about. Including the mindblower about facing up to death: why is imagining a world after your death so much more painful than imagining a world before you were born?

Among the author’s suggestions for coping with a sense of life feeling like a “mere accumulation of deeds” is to understand activities as either ‘telic’ or ‘atelic’. The former is all about completion, about reaching an end state. Focusing on telic projects as your source of fulfilment is doomed to fail, in some ways: as soon as each is completed, you need another to fill the gap.

Switching your mind to an ‘atelic’ view – taking pleasure in time spent doing things for the sake of the activity itself (like going for a walk, as opposed to walking from A to B) can help. It might not mean changing what you do, just changing how you see it: finding meaning in the process of writing or working hard, for example, rather than solely in having finished writing something, or having secured the promotion.

This isn’t so surprising to people who practise mindfulness. What is more surprising, I think, is the concept applied to a bigger picture – like changing the world. In that field, we tend to focus on the telic, “on the distance and precariousness” of huge, often far-off goals, like ending poverty or climate change.

But striving for such things is as much about the “power of now” as anything else, Setiya writes, going on to quote critic John Berger in ‘Bento’s Sketchbook’:

“[Every] profound political protest is an appeal to a justice that is absent, and is accompanied by a hope that in the future this justice will be established; this hope, however is not the first reason the protest is being made. One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests (by building a barricade, taking up arms, going on hunger strike, linking arms, shouting, writing) in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds… A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential.”

When change fails yet again to come, taking action or speaking out itself may feel insignificant. But Setiya argues for the “atelic process of protesting” against the absence of the change one is fighting for. Striving itself has value. 

In this age of protest – commentators have said we’re living a decade-long global trend of unprecedented mass uprisings – it’s incredible to witness some things unravelling fast (click on the below for a full thread detailing the initial effects of the Black Lives Matter protests in May/June).


It’s true that, viewed from a different lens, the battle for racial justice, like so many others, is moving very, very slowly indeed. All the more reassuring then, to feel that making a statement now still matters. That every placard has meaning, however long the march.