Thoughts From a Recovering Kindergartner
“No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannize, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability.” ~Samuel Johnson
There is a quaintly titled book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Despite the cutesy title it does contain real wisdom; the really important stuff such as treating people they way you wish to be treated, being responsible, warm cookies and milk are good for you, and so on...but what about those things we learned that aren't so helpful, yet we seem so loathe to unlearn?
This morning I was chatting with a friend via instant messenger. My friend was having a bit of a rough time. Just as I finished reading a message which read something like, “I knew from the beginning that it wasn't going to work out...I just couldn't see it happening” my five-year-old daughter approached me with tear-filled eyes and haltingly explained that she had a splinter in her knee. When I asked to see it she jumped back, screamed “NO!” and the tears started flowing. When I asked her why she was so upset she snuffled, between blubbery gasps of air, that she “knew” that I would want to “cut it out” and that “it's...*snuff*...gonna...*ungh*...
I did my best to help both my friend and my daughter with their respective troubles, which thankfully did not in fact involve having to “cut” anything “out.” Hopefully they both feel better, though I suspect neither of them are entirely happy with me right now (I have that effect with people apparently). A couple of hours later now, it has occurred to me that I encountered the same sort of human foible in both of them...one which I indulge in far too often myself: Wildly predicting the future.
Now don't get me wrong, I realize that some ability to read the probability of a given situation, coupled with our opposable thumbs, is one of the major components of our climbing to the top of the evolutionary heap. As Joseph Butler said, “To us, probability is the very guide of life.” But we seem to lack the inherent knowledge of where to draw the line.
Q: Being able to see that the likelihood of success in spearing potential food based on past experience?
Q: Being able to see the potential outcome of becoming food if you miss your spear throw and you're the slowest runner in the hunting party?
A: Even better!
Q: Not going out to hunt because it probably won't work out anyway? And even if it does you will probably get a splinter from the spear which will be all hurty/owie when it gets cut out, so you're just going to sit in your cave and cry instead?
A: Um...that's just not going to work out very well for anyone. Except for the ex-potential food who is now very safe from being speared, at least by you.
But we all do it, don't we? God knows I do. I won't pretend to know why. Maybe, like with most everything else, I simply go overboard. I will try to apply this very limited ability (which, by the way, is often wrong even when kept simple...sometimes we still become the food despite using a well established successful hunting method) to things I have no business applying them to...often filling in the gaps with great leaps of logic and big chunks of emotional drama. What could possibly go wrong?!
Often I create my own outcomes simply because I've decided ahead of time what it's going to be. This is especially true when I've predetermined that the outcome will be a negative one. I can ruin anything, even if I succeed in spite of myself! I don't play the lottery because “I know” I won't win, but if someone bought me a ticket and I won I'd probably just bitch because “I knew if I won I'd hit a 'low' jackpot...and look at the taxes I have to pay! This sucks!”
Of course there's the flip side of all this as well...ignoring probability in order to achieve a false sense of comfort. Earl Blumenauer illustrates this well with the statement, “A property in the 100-year floodplain has a 96 percent chance of being flooded in the next hundred years without global warming. The fact that several years go by without a flood does not change that probability.” It's very tempting to think “It won't happen to me” even when there is a good probability it will. The blinders are very comforting until they're ripped off and the flood waters are already up to your nostrils. Then what do you do?
Even with the best of information, predicting the future is sketchy at best. A few quotes I found which say it better than I could:
“If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get very far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability.” -Vannevar Bush
“Reality is not always probable, or likely.” -Jorge Luis Borges
“There are many methods for predicting the future. For example, you can read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls. Collectively, these methods are known as "nutty methods." Or you can put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer models, more commonly referred to as "a complete waste of time.” -Scott Adams
So what's my point? Um...good question. I'm not sure I had one when I started writing this, and now that I'm near the end I'm still not sure I have one. Personally I've thrown out my crystal ball and mind-reading swami hat. They never worked very well. It turns out that I worried an awful lot about shit that never ended up happening anyway, which is really just a way to experience pain in the present for something that may not ever happen in the future. I guess I'm just trying (though often failing) to live within what old Sam Johnson referred to up at the top there, the “sober probability.” Looking too far down the road, giving my fears or hopes too much free rein...these are paralyzing at best, and potentially very damaging.
Paraphrasing what I heard a wise man say a while back...There are two types of things: One type you can't do anything about, in which case why worry about them? The other type you can do something about, so stop wasting your time and energy worrying, and get to doing! And also...We are either in the midst of a disaster or between disasters; there is no way of knowing what they will be or when they will come; the important thing is what we are doing in between so that we can face them when they arrive.
Finally I'll close this with something M.C. Escher said (though not directly related to anything above) which I love due to its truth and irreverence: “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible. I think it's in my basement... let me go upstairs and check.”