The Simon Heng column

I was reading an abstract of a paper on the interaction between the acquisition of a spinal injury and future time orientation – that is, how people who have acquired a disability may seem less interested in making future plans: they might display a truncated sense of their own future, perhaps because they believe that, in effect, their active life is over or, because they think that their life expectancy has been so shortened, it’s not worth making any plans.(1)

It seems obvious that, to carve out a life, a career, each of us continually needs to make and revise our personal plans. Even if they don’t always work out the way we intended, trying to enact our plans helps us move forward emotionally, psychologically and financially. Future time orientation is, perhaps, an essential part of what motivates us to keep going. A lack of a positive sense of your future, it seems to me, is a major part of depression, either in the short term or as an extended condition.

Perhaps it is one of the things that is neglected when helping people with varying conditions too. Many people with multiple sclerosis often describe having “good days” and “bad days”; people living with bipolar disorders find it difficult to predict how their condition will affect them on any particular day. Tetraplegics, like myself, never quite know what tricks our bodies are likely to play on us next – it’s more like future time disorientation.

When I acquired my disability, I went through a long period of emotional paralysis, to which I can now put a name. I eventually realised that nobody can predict the future with any certainty: anyone could acquire a disability in a split-second, my condition could kill me in the next few hours or I could live for another 30 years, so why shouldn’t I make plans, be purposeful, but also prepare myself to deal with any eventuality? I now realise how a lack of a sense of your own future becomes an added disability, unless you can find a way, or be helped, to overcome it.

(1) E Martz, “Do reactions of adaptation to disability influence the fluctuation of future time orientation among individuals with spinal cord injuries?”, Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 47(2), 2004

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