A hundred years ago, educated people believed that the scientific universe was a pretty rational place, ruled by action and reaction, cause and effect. If you knew the positions and vectors of everything at any given moment, you could easily extrapolate everything else, forward and backward in time. Only ignorant religious people thought an omnipotent intelligent god could overrule that sterile logic. It was merely our feeble understanding of today that made life so unpredictable. But eventually science rediscovered chaos and indeterminacy. Sociologists and economists noted “black swan” events. And now civilization is suddenly finding how disruptive a chaotic pandemic can be.
Rationally planning the future is a wonderful fantasy that works much of the time. It is analogous to an integrated circuit _ cheap and reliable, easily discarded and a new one acquired. The flaw in integrated circuits is that they are integrated _ they cannot be repaired. Even a trivial break can irreparably destroy its functionality. Planned futures vanish just as easily _ a carefully prepared nest egg can be lost in a momentary market crash, the detailed construction of a perfect retirement shattered by an unfortunate medical diagnosis or automobile accident.
Daily predictability is not applicable to the long term. Nevertheless, each day, we do wake up the same age, in the same situation, facing the same problems and joys. Our car will start, work will commence, the sun will come up, weather will conform to average. Over the long run, those items may change a lot, but day by day they continue in the same old groove. Unless there is a disruption. And history indicates that an unpredictable disruption is almost predictable.
Panic occurs when our ability to control the situation deteriorates. Normally, we can be pretty sure that if we do not have milk in the refrigerator today we need to buy more for tomorrow’s breakfast, taken care of with a quick shopping trip. Broken cars need a mechanic, rain requires an umbrella. We have a calming belief that we control that aspect of our lives. Yet if a storm or disaster disrupts the supply chain we worry, people grab, stockpile, panic. Tiny inconveniences like lack of bread or deep puddles culminate in mass anxiety.
There is such a thing as “normality,” where we usually live. But normality is not guaranteed. It is simply inertia and cannot account for unexpected events. Chaos also guarantees that nobody can determine the right bets to make _ hedging against the normal, as it were. Maybe the price of milk will skyrocket, maybe it is tulips, maybe gasoline will be unavailable. Sink resources into the wrong thing and you may end up with a refrigerator full of sour curds and a lot of lost opportunity.
In any crisis, experts offer advice. Most of what people want to hear is how to control the outcome. When nothing is offered, or suggestions are impractical, we will follow any superstition to warm our hearts with an illusion. Washing hands, avoiding eye contact with strangers, drinking lots of ginger ale _ whatever we hear and want to believe _ become necessary for peace of mind. Because of the placebo effect _ a great deal of this superstitious behavior actually works to that end.
In the modern integrated-circuit world, where everything has to go just right or nothing works, we have come to trust movie scenarios. A coronavirus pandemic seems very like the Zombie apocalypse. We will all soon be lurching around eating each other. There is a rush of fear, a spasm of irrational behavior. And then day goes by after boring day, and tasks must be done, and no bodies are littering the neighborhood. And life goes on.
There will be lots of chaos to come. Scientists and preachers have been telling us for years, sometimes for thousands of years. Chaos is one of the foundations of the universe. But so are cause and effect and logic. We need to be aware of uncontrollable unpredictable chaos, but we can also learn to mitigate its effects. To some extent, we can even evoke control by determining what to focus on.
As for me, equinox has arrived, spring blooms enliven the landscape, the sky is blue, and I still feel pretty good. None of my neighbors is pounding on my door with a bloody detached hand. If this is really the end _ I don’t think it is _ so be it. A passenger on the Titanic can listen to the band playing and enjoy the music until the sea closes in.