Hunkered down now, I think I’m like most of us are these days: nervous, on edge, and mindful of worst case scenarios. My own playlist seems stuck on the last days of Pompei, the last days of the dinosaurs, and the last hours of 1999 when we took one last deep breath of life before experiencing Y2K. Each tells me a lot about the dangers of predicting the future.
I’ve spent much more time trying to understand the past than the future, and that habit has led me here, writing how we may be wrong because, whether it’s an effort to understand what life was like in ancient Egypt or what my wife said to me just five minutes ago, I am constantly reminded how hard it is to reconstruct the past, which has a way of slipping through our fingers, being gone forever, impossible to revisit in order to test it, or measure it, or take any more photographs of it, leaving us with only the scattered few relics which somehow found their way into our attics. I’ve often thought that in one sense, at least, it’s actually easier to predict the future. If we say that the world will end tomorrow, that’s something we can actually test. When tomorrow comes, we can not only agree upon, but know, with relative certainty, whether we were right or wrong. The past is not so easy.
But whether we’re looking forward or backward, we can’t know, now, if we’re right about the conclusions we reach. Predictions about upcoming election results, about stock market performance, about the future course of global pandemics, can only be based on comparable situations in the past. We extrapolate from the known we’ve experienced to the unknown that looms ahead. But in so doing, we assume a repetitiveness that may be misleading, especially when our ideas are based on the experience of mere lifetimes (like the surprised citizens of Pompei) but even when they’re based on a broader historical record (like those among the dinosaurs who’d studied the Cambrian explosion — I imagine them sitting around, contemplating how far and well they had come since those days, at the moment the asteroid hit.) Predicting the future always carries with it a bias in favor of the past, and past experience is very poorly suited to predicting the unprecedented.
Y2K teaches us that doomsayers may be wrong. The eruption of Vesuvius that wiped out Pompei and the Chicxulub impactor that wiped out the dinosaurs teach us that calamity may strike even when no one’s predicting it. It’s too late to hope that COVID-19 will be the dud that Y2K turned out to be. There’s still time to hope it won’t be the end of life as we know it. It is, of course, a time for diligence, not panic. But within all the precautions we take to fight this invisible enemy, I like to remember that the poor souls who died at Pompei would have been dead for nearly two thousand years now anyway, even if Vesuvius hadn’t erupted. And even more, I like to remember that if an asteroid hadn’t wiped out the dinosaurs, Mammalia would never have thrived, Humanity never existed. From our limited perspective, the Chicxulub disaster was the best thing ever. And from the perspective of those who will inherit this planet from us – the ones we often say we care so much about – we just don’t know how they will view the pandemic of 2020. Perhaps they’ll see it as the beginning of great new things.
It is in that spirit that while I hunker down at home, wiping off door handles with my sanitizer, wondering if it would do any good to start praying again, I remind myself that I will be dead two thousand years from now, one way or another, and that perhaps the demise of us baby-boomers will save the social security system for our grandchildren. Perhaps the crisis which forces us to stay home will lead to a world of less extended travel, more stay-at-home work, more locally-sourced foods, and ultimately, a just-in-time rescue of the world from global warming. We just don’t know, and with uncertainty comes not only bad stock markets but room for hope.
And here it is, spring time after all. As I hunker down, I see birds building nests, I see squirrels and rabbits in the yard, and most comforting of all, I hear people talking about “us” – about coming together for each other, about our responsibility toward each other, about the sacrifices that health care workers and others are making for us. As Pete Seeger reminded us, there’s a season for everything. By my former calendar, this particular season should be bringing me nightly news of Republicans and Democrats insulting each other, modeling animosity and disrespect for our grandchildren. I KNOW that as a result of COVID-19, I haven’t had to listen to quite so much of that recently. Perhaps, COVID-19 is ushering in a new season, with a new calendar. And that, my friends, strikes me as a very good thing.