Andy Schmookler: Our inherent uncertainty about the future

Andy Schmookler

I observed something strange and interesting about myself the other night as I was watching “A Night to Remember” – a 1958 British film about the voyage and sinking of the Titanic. And my guess is that what I observed in myself is true about us humans generally.

What I noticed is that — even though I know well what happened to the Titanic — at some level I could not stop hoping that this time it would turn out differently: this time the messages about iceberg sightings would be attended to, this time the other ships would arrive in time to rescue the people on the sinking ocean-liner.

Of course, when something has already happened, there is no rational basis for hoping that it will turn out differently than it did. Yet there I was, hoping. Knowing the story, but reacting to events as if the future were yet to be determined.

It occurred to me that my reaction was a window into how eons of experience shaped how our consciousness relates to the future. In our real lives, the future is always uncertain. We can imagine how events might go badly, and we feel fear. We can imagine how events might go well, and we feel hope.

The actual future in our lives has never happened yet, and so the inherent uncertainty of the future means that we are never without some reasons to fear and we are never without some reasons to hope.

I am conjecturing that our minds are structured so that we cannot help but experience an element of uncertainty whenever we look out from our present toward the future. And so deeply ingrained is that sense of uncertainty, I’m suggesting, that we can’t help experiencing a story – where the “future” has already been written – at least partly the same way.

Wherever we are in the story feels like a “now,” and – at least in part — we look out from that now into its “future” as we look out from the nows in our own lives: possible things to fear, possible things to hope for. Even if we “know” what’s going to happen, as with me watching the movie about the Titanic, when we’re placed into some “present” in some story, we cannot help but inject our customary uncertainty into our picture of what the story’s “future” might hold.

(Will Romeo get the friar’s letter in time so that this time the two young lovers can live happily ever after?)

The whole issue of knowing or not knowing “the future” has interested me before in some other ways.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been exposed to the history of World War II. I was born in 1946, so of course, as soon as I knew anything about World War II I knew that we had won the war. It wasn’t until fairly recently – when I was studying about the lives of those great wartime leaders, FDR in America and Churchill in Britain – that I began to think more deeply about how it was for the people of my parents’ generation who lived through it.

For the first half of 1942, the war news was quite grim–and they didn’t know that VE Day and VJ Day lay ahead. The news gave them lots of reason for fear. While watching a World War II movie – will that huge gamble of a landing on the beaches of Normandy succeed? – I can still worry, but I can also tell myself, as those living through it could not, that it is the hopes rather than the fears that would be fulfilled.

Regarding a dramatic case where the uncertainty resolved in the other direction, people in retrospect think that the Jews of the 1930s in Germany, and Europe more broadly, should have seen what was coming sooner than they did. But they did not have the advantage of hindsight. They may have been afraid, but who in their position wouldn’t also hold onto the hope that the unthinkable couldn’t happen?

Nowadays, living in this particular “now” in America, I often wonder just which position we are in.

So many worrisome possibilities on the horizon:

  • Will we get into some horrific war with North Korea, or Iran, or even Russia, with whom things are clearly getting more tense? Or will all these tensions get resolved peacefully?
  • Will our constitutional order suffer severe damage from the crisis that now besets us? Or will the rule of law prevail?
  • Will the disruption of our planet’s climate system bring on an era of hardship, strife, and massive dislocation? Or will we find ways to navigate through this challenge without striking the climatic equivalent of an iceberg?

Are we like Americans and British in the dark days of the world war — facing frightening possibilities, but destined to come out pretty all right? Or are we like passengers on the Titanic – the ship declared to be “unsinkable – cruising along expecting the best, about to be plunged into the killingly frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

This story truly remains to be written. And as we are human, and as the future is inherently unknowable, we must necessarily deal with the interplay of hope and fear in our hearts.

Andy Schmookler, who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012, is a prize-winning author whose recent series “A Better Human Story” can be found at www.abetterhumanstory.org.