Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rock or Lion?

Every morning, while my uncle hitched the ancient farm horse to the cart, my grandmother would come out of the kitchen to supervise. "That horse," she would say, shaking her head,"is going to kill somebody one of these days." No matter that the horse hadn't broken into a trot within living memory: disaster could strike at any time.

Years later, I am in college and living at home. I am warming up the engine of my Renault Dauphine to get to my morning class across Birmingham, Alabama, when my mother runs out of the house and thrusts a hard-boiled egg through the driver's side window. "Here. Eat this on the way. You don't want to faint at the wheel and cause a tragedy." No matter that I have never fainted in my life, but it is best to be prepared.

Both my grandmother and my mother had lived through the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, so they had an excuse for their hyper vigilance. And they were convinced that it worked: after all, the cart horse never did kill anybody, and I never fainted at the wheel of that tiny car.

Unlike my mother and grandmother, however, I have led a peaceful existence, free (so far) from wars and other disasters. So there is no apparent reason for my own deep-seated conviction that it is only my constant watchfulness that keeps the world from falling to pieces.

Here is what goes through my mind on a routine trip to the market. At this season in Vermont the roads are rife with cyclists. What if one of them swerves in front of my car? What if, in the fruit aisle, the grapes I put in my cart are contaminated with a deadly bacterium? What if, at the checkout, I find out that our credit card's been hacked and we are now penniless?

When he was an old man, Mark Twain said that he had lived through many catastrophes, most of which never happened. Like the women in my family, Twain suffered from what scientists call the "negativity bias," a tendency towards pessimism and anxiety engraved in our DNA over millions of years by natural selection.

Say you are an early human wandering on the African savanna. Behind a tree in the distance, you see a beige-colored mass. It could be a rock, or it could be a lion. If you optimistically assume that it is a rock but it turns out to be a lion, you and your potential descendants are toast. If, on the other hand, you are an anxious type like Mark Twain, you will take to your heels immediately and, regardless of what the beige object actually turns out to be, you will live to pass on your genes, which will include a tendency to expect the worst.

The problem in our time is that, with lions on the wane, the negativity bias causes unwarranted stress and militates against the health and well being of millions of us modern Cassandras. It may even work against reproductive success, since deciding to become a parent requires at least a modicum of optimism. So the lesson for people like me might be to learn to imagine fewer lions, and trust in the ubiquitousness of rocks.

But the thing is that, for both optimists and Cassandras alike, there will ultimately be a lion behind the tree. It will be no use pretending that it is a rock, or hoping that it is old and toothless. That lion will catch us no matter how fast we flee.The closer I get to that final encounter, the more I think that the trick is not to run or struggle, but to face the beast and respectfully ask it to deliver the killing bite as quickly and kindly as possible.