Predicting the Unpredictable

Last week my youngest told me that if he could go back in time, he would find the terrorist headquarters and blow it up – he actually said he would sacrifice himself – so that 9/11 would never have happened.  That’s the lesson he brought to this day.  When I told him that we can never quite know what might have prevented that day ten years ago, he found that answer wholly unsatisfactory and I don’t blame him.  I didn’t like it either, but I also know that my childhood was laced with an understanding that we weren’t expected to control our futures, only to prepare ourselves to lead the best life we could with the blessings we have.  Among the many disillusionments of the 21st century, this responsibility to control everything in life that we are imposing on our children, and its attendant assignment of blame for every mishap, is the biggest one.  What was once the ebb and flow of daily life has turned into a lady or the tiger conundrum every single day.

Now more than ever, it seems we are trying to predict the future and we are still surprised when we are wrong.  With the 24 hour news cycle, smartphones and iPad apps, the media devotes so much time and space to people saying they know what the future holds interspersed with other people trying to say they saw the most recent disaster coming followed by a systematic and relentless assignment of blame.  What is wrong with this picture?  How do we calculate our success rate in preventing catastrophe?  Most of the time the people who saw it coming – if there are any – cannot be found on CNN, Fox or the Huffington Post, that’s for sure.

There was a time when the most we could expect to warn us of disaster was the tornado siren.  What we have now that earlier generations did not is a bombardment of information that gives us the illusion that whatever happens, we should see it coming.   We spent days preparing and watching hurricane Irene blast up the coast only to have her ravage inland rivers – apparently, no one warned Vermont.  All of the tsunami sensors in the Pacific did not dissuade Japan from placing a nuclear power plant on the coast.  And all of those big banks got hoodwinked by the ratings agencies and never noticed all of those bad loans they were underwriting.  It’s no wonder we scratch our heads and wonder how we missed it because as time goes by our mistakes seem ever more stupid and obvious.

Pick a topic – our health, the economy, or the weather – there are any number of solutions to it that are just a click away.  And yet, the flow of disasters almost seem to speed up rather than abating with all of this new knowledge and the ability to communicate it.  If we leave the TV and the internet on, we are fed, ever so smoothly, the myth that we can prevent bad things from happening when in some respects the bad things are perpetuated by us sitting in front of the screen.  And the more preposterous and untenable the theory, the better – we reward the wing nuts:  I watched the movie Network last spring and it could have been a documentary. 

The moment of revelation in youth that people do terrible things for reasons we cannot understand is one we never forget, and a certain part of our lives is indeed devoted to trying to avert the personal disasters we have known in the forms of death, illness, poverty and pain.  Those moments stand juxtaposed with the more collective events for which we don’t feel any personal culpability but then feel compelled to do something about:   My parents had Pearl Harbor as a defining moment (and that came on the heels of the Great Depression), the following generation had the death of President Kennedy (followed by the Viet Nam war and Watergate), and we have this day (followed by two wars and a financial meltdown).  What one generation does in response to its challenges defines the generation that follows, and I don’t pretend to know that that means for my children – I’m not getting into the prediction business.

Many years ago my cousin was dying of cancer, and she removed every newspaper, magazine and television from her home so that she could focus on her art and on helping others (she offered free financial advice to retirees).  I admired her focus but recall thinking that I would never shut myself off from the world the way that she did, even in those circumstances.  Now, as I watch the towers fall yet again, I understand, and yet I watch, hoping to think of something good we can do with my son’s time machine.

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