“A Time and World Not Yet in Existence”: Living in a World of Prediction Addiction

There was a lot of thinking about the future in the last few weeks.

I turn 33 tomorrow, and birthdays seem to be a time to think about what the future year might hold.

At work, our department had to think about our strategic plan for the next year, two years, and five years. That’s involved a lot of thinking what could be, and attempting to call corners on what the years might bring.

As a parent, thoughts of the future have been on our mind a lot. Having a kid who’s on the younger side of children with narcolepsy, we get a lot of views of what parents are going through at older ages. I recently watched part of a BBC documentary from the early 2000s, which featured a 14-year old who had 50 cataplexy attacks a day. Even though one can tell themselves “Every case is different,” it’s hard not to sometimes wonder about the future limitations of your child’s life. Will my daughter do okay next year? in middle school? In her vocation? What will her days look like? Will things get better, or worse?

Last week, while my youngest was at dance class, I had the chance to sit in the other room and read parts of Wendell Berry’s recent book The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings. Focusing mostly on thoughts surrounding the latest election, as well as many of his fictional writings, the book also features a lengthy essay related to science, titled “Leaving the Future Behind: A Letter to a Scientific Friend.” The essay extensively discusses how the act of prediction, and speculation, often lead to bigger problems, and often a combination of fears and anxieties for people. According to Berry,

The problem with prediction, no matter how scientifically respectable it may be, is its power to bring on first a fear and then a moment that can be popularized into a fad. Nobody, I think, has ever done good work because of fear. Good work is done by knowing how and by love.

Berry goes on to say that our fear results in a lot of prediction, and a lot of subsequent action that is done “always in agitation,” as it is a combination of potential happiness and possible chaos. As I read that, it made me wonder the following question: is my worrying about my future, or my family’s future, doing more harm than good? Are we addicted, as people, to prediction? Berry notes that scientific experts not only project what could happen, but also feed into the needs and wants of a society who feels anxious about future days:

Professionally, the future seems to belong to the more or less scientific experts. We want, sometimes desperately, to know what is going to happen. We want a prognosis, a projection, a prediction, a contingency plan, a posture of military readiness. 

All in all, we want control over something that cannot ultimately be controlled, which leads us to spin out of control as humans. For some, it’s a job to predict the future, whether calling out the future of the stock market, conducting astrological readings, or giving morning commuters an idea about the weather for the next few days. Sometimes it’s something big, like the end of the world; other times, it’s about a short-term blizzard and needing enough food. (The panic about snowstorms always results in a shortage of ingredients to make French toast: eggs, milk and bread. In my wife’s home region of Atlantic Canada, “storm chips” are a part of snowstorm foodways.)

It’s hard not to worry when you don’t know what will take place. The anxiety is, for many people, overwhelming, and seemingly capable of inducing cardiac trouble. During the several years of graduate school that involved applying for various jobs and fellowships throughout the continent, I frequently fretted, panicked and worried about the well-being and vocational path that was to come. In the process, I discovered a small verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew that has continued to make an impact. Highlighted in pink, in the small Bible that I received from my parents upon starting college, is the following text:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:34, OSB)

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Mari’s diagnosis, as I’ve mentioned before, has taught us that some days are just about enduring the day as it comes. Many times, as we have prepared for sleep, have been about being grateful for just making it another day, and adding another day to the life experience pool. In working with youth, I have noticed that a lot of kids have a lot of fear about their future not working out as they predicted it would be. Many high schoolers are over-involved, and are pushed to be involved in as many things as possible, out of the fear that they might be seen as ordinary, unexceptional, or less-than-A-plus. Their fear of rejection, or the plan not lining up, ultimately pulls them away from the plan.

Tito Colliander, in his book The Way of the Ascetics, stressed the importance of fighting the urges we face by doing the opposite of them:

It is the life of our will that is destroyed. Since the Fall the will has been running errands exclusively for its own ego. For this reason our warfare is directed against the life of self-will as such. And it should be taken without delay or wearying. If you have the urge to ask something, don’t ask! If you have the urge to drink two cups of coffee, drink only one! If you have the urge to look at the clock, don’t look! If you wish to smoke a cigarette, refrain! If you want to go visiting, stay home!

Colliander and Berry are both suggesting the same thing: don’t give into the urge to be in control. Being fearful and trying to predict the future is something that is so ingrained in society, that Berry’s words are strikingly radical. As much as I want to say that my child will have everything in place, and she will lead an incredible life, I cannot predict what will happen in her life. I cannot even predict what may take place on my birthday. But I have the ability to say no to trying to call the uncallable.

So with that in mind, I have to ask the following questions:

How does my fear of the future affect my daily life?

How can I make small changes to reverse that fear?

What are some ways to turn that fear into prayer?

 

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