The Compulsion to Prognosticate

We live in an uncertain world. We do not know what will happen next. We cannot control the actions of others. We do not know how long we will be around on this planet. We don’t know how long this planet will orbit around the sun.

All of this has always been true.

All of this seems even more true as we live in the current moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has elicited a broad array of collective behaviors among each of us. While the situation itself is a public health emergency that is experienced in biological particles that elicit physiological responses and even death, for most of us most of the time, the pandemic is most consciously experienced in a psychological space. We are faced with maintaining a sense of well-being and continuity in the midst of a world that looks and feels very different than the one we thought we were living in a few months ago.

Of all the varied coping mechanisms that I have observed being deployed during this crisis, the most poignant is our utter compulsion to prognosticate. From casual conversation to every pundit on every news network to the President of the United States, we seem obsessed with prognosticating about when we’ll get “back to normal”. Of course, the pandemic has thus far proved the most optimistic of these predictions to be wildly inaccurate, and –hopefully — will prove the direst prognosticators the same. The issue, however, is not the accuracy of our predictions. It is our seeming inability to not make them. We seemingly can’t help weighing in one when we think schools will re-open or travel will resume, and we wildly criticize those whose projections differ from our own.

Why are we so seemingly obsessed with predicting the future? We want to feel that we are in control. It is deeply unsettling to feel out of control and uncertain about the future. We like to live with the illusion that the world is predictable. We rely on patterns and rituals — morning coffee, Easter egg hunts, happy hours, sports playoffs — as markers in time that anchor our place in the world. Without these predictable patterns, we can feel a bit lost.

We also like to measure the limits of our endurance. We seem to have the capacity to push through a challenging experience when we see its endpoint. I can run a hard interval or burn the midnight oil for a project if I can envision — at the end of that 800 meters or 24-hour push — there will be a breath, a respite, or a reward. It is when there is no light at the end of the tunnel that we become susceptible to depression and learned helplessness.

So, it’s clear “why” we prognosticate, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy. In fact, I believe that this compulsion has negative consequences in an uncertain world. It keeps us from focusing on the moment, from being present, and it leads to greater feelings of insecurity when — inevitably — our predictions fail.

As we have sheltered in place, we have experiened that fear and doubt about the world. We have missed our friends and canceled our travel. But, we have also experienced good things. We’ve maybe relaxed a bit more. We have burned fewer fossil fuels. We have connected with our families at a deeper level.

If we spend the moment obsessed on when this all will end — on some normal (that by the way is a myth concocted by our brains to keep us psychologically safe from reality)– we risk missing out on the magic that is right now. If we obsessively push for a return to the past, to re-open our economy for example — we embrace an illusion of certainty that has never been true of the future. Further, we risk, by our actions, creating a far different future than the one we are obsessed with returning to. More specifically, if I’m obsessed with eating out at a restaurant again because that feels normal and I rush out to do so, my actions may further spread the virus leading to even greater disruption down the road.

So, next time you find yourself compelled to prognosticate — and you will either by your own volition or the inquiries of your prediction-addicted friends and families — make note of it, take a breath, and focus on the day that is before you right here, right now. That is what is “normal”. That is what is certain. That is what we will always have — not matter what the future looks like.

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