Ellipsism: The Melancholy of Missing Out on the Future
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is filled to the brim with invented words of unexpected poignancy. Every once in a while, however, it produces something unexpected; a term that truly encapsulates with utter perfection a once-unutterable feeling. One of the more famous of these is the word anemoia, or nostalgia or a time you’ve never known. Another, buried by obscurity, is ellipsism, or the melancholy of missing out on the future.
Of course, as a completely made-up word, its definition is rather flexible, but definitions do tend to fit into one of two categories. The first is that of ellipsism as a sense of sadness that arises when one thinks of the immediate future they’ll miss out on. Perhaps they won’t get to see their grandkids grow old. Perhaps they won’t get to see their community or country emerge out of times of troubles. Perhaps they won’t get to see the conclusion of the world’s current political problems. In all of these scenarios, the sorrow is intensely personal. In the second definition, though, this could not be further from the truth.
In this second definition, ellipsism is taken to be something of a much more cosmic importance. It is not simply pondering on local happenings you don’t expect to get to witness. It is philosophizing on the end of history itself. Ellipsism, in this view, is a united crying out among the people of the present to get a glimpse into the future. Modernity always seems like such a meaningless thing. Man needs an assurance, if he is to keep trudging through this meaninglessness, that it’ll all be worth it in the end. Of course, these assurances will never come, and history’s end will never be witnessed by those witnessing the world today. And thus, not only is ellipsism truly universal, but also unendingly tragic.
Such existential melancholy may not be an immortal affliction, however. There is a chance, no matter how slim, that we could collectively put this unproductive despondency to rest. Ellipsism is but a product of a particular mindset, and this mindset is but one of many we may select for ourselves. It is, essentially, a warped perception of time that leads to this frightening feeling. And, if we switch our perception of time around, we may effectively eliminate ellipsism and its overwhelming woe.
The past we idolize exists only in memory. The future we ponder over is but a figment of our imagination. All that happens - all that actually happens, beyond all of our fallacious preconceptions and convoluted attitudes - happens now. And yet, we rarely allow ourselves to live in the present for to think of the past is more nostalgic, and to think of the future is more exciting. It’s an ironic thing, perhaps, to ponder. Our fixations on the past and future are precisely what rob us of the experience of the present. Thus, we see that ellipsism is but one of the innumerable nasty side effects of the most prevalent of all plagues; the plague of overthinking.
Still, this does not exactly answer the ever-present question of how we may ever be present. The answers that do exist for it are innumerable; you’d be hard-pressed to find a religion or philosophy that doesn’t prescribe a mental medication to this universal affliction. In all of them, though - in Buddhist meditation, in Taoist internal alchemy, in Sufi whirling, in Stoic reflection on death, and in all sorts of ritualistic singing and chanting - is the use of autotelic practices. For something to be autotelic - and forgive me for the mountain of new terminology - it must be done for its own sake. The often quoted but rarely comprehended Alan Watts once said this: “when we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point.” What he was saying, without actually saying it, is that these things are autotelic practices.
It is in these autotelic practices that we finally find a solution to the problem of ellipsism. When enveloped in doing something for its own sake, or more wordily, when a state of flow arises out of an autotelic practice, our ruminations on the past and future fade away. Ellipsism loosens its grip upon us, and thus, we become free. And thus, at long last, we arrive at both an exploration of and a solution to this curious little universal woe.