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Plague Meditation: How To Predict The Future

The best way to predict the future is to imagine a scenario in which everyone somehow gets what they want, but nobody is happy about it.

Having quit Facebook six months ago, I have no idea what my thousand or so friends think of the pandemic. They don’t know what I think of it, either. So far as my own opinions go, this is for the best. My feelings about the pandemic have changed quite a bit in the last eight weeks.

If I had convinced anyone of my opinions on the quarantine when it started, I would now be trying to convince them of something else. Simply put, my own thoughts on the pandemic may be passionate, but they are not stable, which means it would be reckless on my part to share them. Having escaped Facebook, though, I am not tempted to inflict my dumb ideas about the pandemic on anyone. Had I remained on Facebook through the pandemic, I am sure I would have ultimately snapped at someone whose thoughts about the matter were as spontaneous and misinformed as my own. I would have been shocked that my friends— who had appeared so reasonable and so generous before— could be so blind, so calloused, and so illogical about matters related to the coronavirus. No, wait. This is how they would have felt about me. It is easy to confuse the two.

When the pandemic began, much of the conversation about it centered on science and common sense. Now, such conversations are about “the future of the world,” which means that speculations have become even more dire and passions even more inflamed. Whether they take place on social media or in person, such conversations are doomed to vanity. On the few occasions I have discussed the matter with my wife or my two closest friends, I have done little but shake my head and repeat sad, Solomonic verities about the world as though they have just become true in the last hundred days.

Rewind the tapes to January 2020. Suppose you had convened a small contingent of garden-variety Democrats and asked them to make a list of their ten biggest cultural goals over the next twenty years. And suppose you did the same with a small contingent of garden-variety Republicans. Oddly enough, the coronavirus has probably satisfied more than half the items on each party’s list. Extramarital sex has declined, but so have carbon emissions. Government intervention has increased, but so has family time. The best way to predict the future is to imagine a scenario in which everyone somehow gets what they want, but nobody is happy about it.

Regardless of which way you vote, you’ve probably not noticed how much of your own party’s cultural wish-list has been fulfilled of late, but I bet you have noticed the other party getting what they’ve always wanted. We’re all notoriously bad at knowing when we’ve gotten our own way. This is also the lesson of most stories about magic lamps. When the genie appears, no one ever says, “I wish I was more honest.” You don’t need a genie for that. Provided you really mean what you say, any teacup in your cupboard can grant that wish. We have little interest in controlling ourselves, but we’re terribly interested in controlling the world and seizing the reigns that steer “the future.”

The pandemic is a fine opportunity to size up the difference between seeking virtue and seeking control. Of what use is it to a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul? And yet, these are always the terms the devil imposes. In fact, if the offer is for “the world,” the identity of the one making the offer is a given. If your own wisdom is offering “the world” back to others— to anyone who will listen— you don’t know what spirit you are of.

Today, there are plans to make. A great many things that have been settled for a hundred years are suddenly up for debate. Ancient concrete is wet again and we are all learning what a burden control really is— control of others, at least. Control of “things.” And yet, every man is born with the same control over himself which he later wishes he had over others.

Now is the time— is always the time— to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow anger.

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