A Wise (and Terrible) Thought

Suppose you were on Air France Flight 4590, the Concorde supersonic transport (SST), on July 25, 2000, the day it crashed on takeoff, killing everyone on board. You strap yourself and your child in your seats. You are a little nervous, as always about flying and especially on takeoff, but you know the statistics and you are a rational person. Meanwhile you put on a jaunty face for your 10-year-old, who is peering out the window, excited and happy. Really it is time for you to relax and enjoy. A long-awaited vacation has begun. Nothing’s going to happen, so focus on having a good time. 

            What is so godawful about life (among a million other godawful things) is that your child is more enlightened that you are in this instance. He hasn’t a care in the world because his mind is not filled with reality the way yours is. (Of course I am idealizing the child in this example to make a point.) You are absolutely correct to realize that nothing whatsoever guarantees that you and he will not be going up in a ball of fire in five minutes. In fact if anything it is “guaranteed” by Laplacean determinism that either you will be or you won’t (and actually, in this case, unbeknownst to you, that you will). 

            But it is not rational to live in accordance with mere possibilities. We must gauge our behaviors (and feelings if possible) according to the probable in order to have the best chance at a good life, or life at all. So since you simply cannot know that some debris on the runway is going to cause a tire to burst, which in turn will cause a gas tank to burst, and so on and so forth, which furthermore is, statistically speaking, an utterly unlikely (and “unlucky”) sequence of events, it is only rational for you to cultivate equanimity about what you cannot control and immerse yourself in thoughts and feelings about what is most highly probable to occur, which itself demands your utmost attention for things to run smoothly and enjoyably.

            But this means you are leaving yourself (and others) open to catastrophe. You are, as it were, defenseless. That is, you are already, ex hypothesi, defenseless against the catastrophe; the plane is going to crash and you and your child are going to die a horrible death. But what I am talking about now is that you have also allowed yourself to be mentally, emotionally defenseless. You have not “steeled yourself” against the possibility of the imminent possible death. Indeed, if you are rational, you try to put it out of your mind, so that you can become like your child and just enjoy the thrill of taking off in an airplane into the sky! 

            I mean to be endorsing this defenselessness. My thought – both wise and terrible – is that it is only superstition that makes us “want” to dwell on mere but awful possibilities … as if by doing so we could ward off the evil. There is a seeming logic to this: For if the awful possibility actually happened while we were thinking about it, that would just be too much of a coincidence. 

But it wouldn’t be “too much” of a coincidence at all: What could be more natural than for somebody to be worrying about one’s plane crashing just before it does? This superstitious phenomenon is reminiscent of prayer, which can similarly be used as a spell to ward off evil. One prays for God’s protection, as if this could change the course of events. But who can doubt that just as many people are praying for their plane not to crash on takeoff when the plane does crash as when it does not? 

            So forget the prayers, and forget the worrying: Be like your child, who is just enjoying the ride. Interestingly, here too there is a parallel to prayer, but of a different kind from the petitionary. This is the sort of prayer that says simply, “I put myself in Your hands” … that is, not expecting protection thereby but rather surrendering to a God who will do as he wisheth for His own inscrutable reasons. I see this as closer to the attitude I am advancing: Que sera sera – you simply accept that what is going to happen is out of your hands, hope for the best, and get on with the lighter (or pressing) aspects of your situation. 

Oh yes, there is a good reason for natural selection to have instilled the superstition in us, since being aware of unlikely possibilities is itself a survival skill. After all, we certainly want the pilots to be well trained in abortive maneuvers should there be a problem on takeoff. And these pilots were … albeit not for the exceedingly unlikely events that actually transpired. That probably would have been an unreasonable burden on the training of pilots. Again, it is understood that life can only function at all in terms of probabilities and not mere possibilities. 

But the price of living without irrational fears is the abject shock and terror one will experience when the mere possibility becomes a reality. This, I am now suggesting, is nothing but the price of the good life.

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