Exactly how terrible are the next months and years going to be? As a generally apocalyptically minded sort of person, I’ve been feeling some pride in watching my favourite question become everyone else’s favourite question, too; it’s like being a 19th-century aristocrat and seeing your debutante daughter become the star of the London season. But in deciding who to listen to, and thus how alarmed to be, it’s easy to overlook a crucial factor: in a crisis as all-consuming as this one, nobody – not academic experts, not media commentators, not that one friend who keeps urging you to be less (or more) worried than you are – is a completely neutral observer. Because predictions about the future aren’t solely about the future. They’re also coping mechanisms for dealing with the present.
This is obvious enough in the case of the strenuous optimist who insists that in a few weeks everything will be back to normal; she’s clearly attempting to generate a sense of security in a time of uncertainty. But it’s been fascinating to witness the opposite, too: the people in my social circle, and especially my social media feeds, who seem deeply invested in asserting that things will be worse than the rest of us can imagine. (Even professional epidemiologists are engaged in an arms race to predict a longer and longer timeframe for social distancing.) Psychologically, though, this makes sense. When everything’s up in the air, the person foreseeing absolute disaster has found solid ground: at least things won’t get worse than that.
Likewise, consider our political reactions to the pandemic. Fury at the government’s response may be highly justified, but if being angry at the Tories has always been central to your personality, to be angry at the Tories now is also a perverse source of comfort. Virtually nothing may be the same, these days – but at least the Tories remain hateable.
The point here isn’t to dismiss any particular outlook on the grounds that it’s partly a coping mechanism. (Nobody gets by without some coping mechanisms. Mine include writing columns about other people’s.) But it’s useful to see the role they play, if only to stop yourself spiralling into anxiety next time someone you trust paints an especially dark picture of the future. They may be proven right, of course. But what’s certain is they’re a human, engaging in their own private methods for managing their emotions.
Besides, it’s worth remembering that this calamity is further evidence for the truth that most of us, most of the time, have no idea what’s coming. “On your pessimistic days you should remember, three months ago you would have dismissed the idea of the world being locked down with a pandemic,” the economist Kaushik Basu observed recently. “Extrapolating from your poor record of forecasting, you should realise your current forecast of future gloom may also be completely wrong.”
I don’t think that’s an argument for replacing pessimism with optimism, but for trying to suspend both. There’s a lightness that comes with giving up, if only a little, the demand to know what tomorrow holds. They say that if you expect the worst, you’ll only be pleasantly surprised, but that way you still have to feel glum now. The real skill – while doing your best to prepare for the future – is to avoid expecting anything.