Getting old can be dreary in some respects, but there are compensations. On the downside, you forget a lot, sometimes to a worrying degree. On the plus side, with each passing year, your sense of “lived time” becomes richer and deeper. The mere mention of a certain event or a certain year (“1962,” say) may trigger a voluptuous awareness of “the past.” You also gain a perspective, far from infallible but informed by “lived experience,” that counters the absurd presentism bedeviling much of our public discourse.
Just over fifteen years ago, I reviewed a book by Lee Clarke, a sociologist at Rutgers, titled Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination. Earlier this year, it was reissued in paperback by the original publisher, University of Chicago Press, perhaps in part in response to the pandemic. Clarke’s book, which I recently reread, is even more timely in 2021 than it was when first published. Clarke wants ordinary citizens and policymakers to pay more attention to potential catastrophic events: events improbable, but still possible, with consequences so severe that we ignore them at our peril. Right now, do any salient examples come to mind? An experimental virus accidentally released from a top-secret lab, for instance?
A couple years ago, my wife, Wendy, and I had a troubling conversation while driving to the airport to drop off a younger friend. Wendy has been particularly saddened by the increase in suicide among teenagers. Reports of such deaths stab her to the heart. “It seems so hard to understand,” she said. Our conversation partner disagreed. “After all,” he said, “we’re living in what is probably the most depressing period in human history.”
That outlook is far more common in 2021 than it was fifteen years ago, when Worst Cases was first published. Despair is not the state of mind that Clarke wants us to cultivate. Rather, he argues for a chastened awareness of threats facing us. We should be prudent—willing to think about and plan for contingencies we’d prefer to brush aside, but with a healthy sense of our limitations. “Worst cases,” Clarke writes, “should humble us more than they do.” He quotes the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin: “Catastrophes are the educators of mankind.” But just when you suppose that Clarke has lost his moorings (“Calamity can provide new experiences and opportunities for observation that lead to advances in scientific and technical knowledge,” he intones), he turns around and lists several telling examples of “poor learning” in the wake of disaster. That blessed sanity is a hallmark of his book.
“Worst cases,” of course, can be personal and highly “localized” as well as vast in scope. I read Clarke's book differently in 2021 than I did fifteen years ago. Even with the pandemic fully in mind, I found myself thinking more about personal worst cases than about threats on a larger scale. I don’t think that’s a sign that my sense of the world and our common life is shrinking; rather, it seems simply a natural response to the reality of aging. As Christians, we trust that our ultimate fate is in the best of hands, but that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to manage the mundane details of our lives as best we can. Having always been disinclined to “plan ahead,” I find this quite daunting.
One way my mind responds to this pressure is to imagine scenarios involving our future (Wendy’s and mine, not to mention the future of our dear aging cats Boom-Boom and Nina), scenarios that are, alas, all too plausible. This plot-generating mechanism (so it seems) operates without any conscious intent on my part, and it often relieves me by turning bleak potential outcomes in deliciously absurd directions. Worst cases? Pah! Merely more grist for the mill.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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