Humanity In Uncertain Times

Tropical storm Sally

We want to know, from our vantage point in the present, that things will be OK later on. But we never can. (This is why it’s wrong to say we live in especially uncertain times. The future is always uncertain; it’s just that we’re currently very aware of it.)

Oliver Burkeman

Today, tropical storm Sally is raging off the west coast of Florida. 50 miles per hour winds are being sustained within its swirling bands and by tomorrow, the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters are expected to increase those speeds into a category 2 hurricane force before it makes landfall. Behind it, five more similar storm systems are brewing in the tropical Atlantic.

This kind of thing is a yearly event for my state. A “season” we all begrudgingly prepare for. We stock up on batteries and bottled water while our local meteorologists act as soothsayers, reading the warnings in the winds. We rely on their predictions to protect ourselves. Weighing the decision to “hunker down” or evacuate from the colorful swirls and dotted lines they overlay onto maps. The most famous, and arguably most useful, of these is the Cone of Uncertainty: a pair of boundary lines that begin at the storm’s current location and extend out along a projected trajectory for where it could be in the future. An ever-expanding zone of prediction that grows less accurate the farther into the future it goes.

Cone of Uncertainty

It’s odd that the best tool for predicting the future is something calling itself uncertain but, if you’ve ever had to rely on one, you would understand it’s usefulness. The predictions offered by the cone of uncertainty are just that; temporary predictions useful in the moment. It doesn’t lie with a false certainty and once it’s old, you delete it and make a new one.

I wish more world events had their own cones of uncertainty for us to follow.

Until very recently, I’ve never been one to doomscroll1. In my early days on the internet, I somehow learned that obsessively refreshing bad news or controversial social media posts hurt me more than it helped me. In spite of this good mental hygiene, I found myself doing just that for several nights this past week. The bright side is I identified the problem before it became a habit but I’m concerned with the insidious way the behavior arrived.

Try as I might to settle myself in this era of unrest and uncertainty, there’s always some new form of problem to feel anxious about. It doesn’t even matter which “side” one is on, we’ve devolved into addressing the future in such a universally dystopic way that we keep short-circuiting our coping mechanisms.

The truth is that our future has always been uncertain. None of us ever truly knows everything that’s going to happen and anyone who says differently is lying or selling something. We may not like that uncertainty but its truth absolves us of the lie that we have to control things beyond our capacity. All of us are plotting courses from our limited perspectives and we don’t have to know everything about everything in order to take small, humane steps that lead towards a better future.

  1. Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. ↩︎


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