I’ve been occupying my days these days with an online class on the history of divination* and meditating. I couldn’t have come up with a more contrasting combination if I’d tried. In class, I’m immersing myself in that impossible and very human desire to know what will happen, and on the meditation cushion I’m paying attention to the undeniable fact that nothing happens in the future, things can only happen now.
We’re hardwired to seek out warnings and signs of danger; it’s good for our longevity as a species, although miserable for our present day happiness. In ancient uncertain times, we used to throw knucklebone dice or seek out the advice of the oracle of Delphi; now we’re glued to the utterances of epidemiologists, economists, and political opinion writers. Like those who used to claim to interpret the will of the gods, our modern prognosticators keep a little wiggle room in their predictions. The oracle spoke in riddles, epidemiologists and economists have the unknown variable of human behavior to point to when their predictions miss the mark. But how lucky are we to live in an era of science, that modern idea of coming up with a falsifiable statement and running experiments to test those theories? I’ll throw my lot in with them anytime rather than with the Haruspex of ancient Rome who would read sheep livers to see if the king would die.
We’re all playing armchair epidemiologist now. Even if you’re not inclined to pundits, I bet you’re spending way too much time on them. It makes me think of those dark days when Trump was elected. We were in Avignon on a would-we-could-we live-here visit. We spent weeks overcoming the shock and overconsuming the news, blindsided, even though I was one of the very few of my friends who thought it was a possibility he would be elected. Not because I’m good at prognosticating, but because I am spectacular at catastrophizing. The thing that was ultimately helpful to me at that time was realizing that at that present moment, the only thing that had actually changed was my idea of what the future would be like. My predictions of what would be in store for the next years were wrong by an exponential order of magnitude of absurdity, chaos, and turmoil, but my weeks of worry did nothing to change what would happen. It did however completely ruin those weeks with anxiety.
It’s helpful to make models of the future, both globally and personally. Make your best plan, and then go ahead and enjoy the present to the best of your abilities. This current horror does not erase that which is still delightful. Good things can still come from this. Mark and I are here now because of my long-standing conviction that the world was going to hell, and what did I want to do in the meantime? Wherever you are right now is hopefully the result of what you’ve wanted, the future you aimed for in the past.
Buddhist futurology is the notion of karma, which simply means cause and effect. Result of actions. It can be personal, but it’s not necessarily your fault when awful things happen to you. (Except of course if you’re the type who plays stupid games to win stupid prizes.) There’s no punishing, judging god or universe, it’s simply the chickens coming home to roost. What counts is what you do next with what has happened.
Still, how not to worry about the future? Take comfort in knowing that your predictions and everyone else’s will be wrong. All you have to do is read past futurists to see just how bad we are at foretelling what is to come. But know that when it arrives, you will bring to it all of the skills and ingenuity that you are capable of right now, and maybe more. Whatever arises. Did I think for one instant in all of my past apocalyptic worrying that I would one day be fashioning a face mask to maybe save my life out of an old handkerchief, rubber bands and a pathetically small travel sewing kit? While protesters in the US throng their capitals to reclaim their right to eat burgers? While the impeached president uses his pulpit to suggest ingesting disinfectants? I have the feeling we haven’t even scratched the surface of absurdity or plumbed the depths of hysteria. Shoes will continue to drop. Think about the future you want, but then think about the now. This very moment is the special moment you’ve been waiting for. It’s time to use the good china. Open that bottle you’ve been saving. Raise a glass and thank whatever being it is that you thank that we have scientists, virologists, epidemiologists, and the scientific method rather than relying on reading sheep entrails. And then get to work on what comes next.
*Harvard via EDX.org, if you’re so inclined. And it’s free!