Procrastinators, Predictors, and Prophets

diana daviesSpoiler alert. Here is what pundits have predicted will happen in 2018. The Post will win the Oscar for best picture and the Yankees will win the World Series. Jared Kushner will be indicted, the Democrats will take back the House, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will be overthrown by his own people. Mt Vesuvius will erupt, there will be terrorist attacks using drones, and humans will have their first verifiable contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life. How likely is any of this to happen? Who knows? As an old Danish proverb reminds us, “it is hard to make predictions, particularly about the future.”

At the beginning of the new year, we turn our focus from the past to the future. What will happen this year? Will 2018 be better than 2017? The optimists among us might say that it must be better; it certainly can’t get worse. And yet, it seems certain that the effects of climate change will become more severe, our national political turmoil will boil even hotter, and racism and resurging white nationalism won’t just go away overnight. So, what are we to do? How do we deal with such a dreadful future? Not just in the coming year, but looking forward – 5, 10, 15 years from now? Well, there are three options: 1) we can try to put off tomorrow for as long as possible – we can procrastinate and avoid dealing with the future at all; 2) we can try to predict what will happen and then prepare ourselves for the worst; or 3) we can actively try to change the future through our words and our actions, we can be a prophetic people.
Let’s start with procrastination because, you know, why not put the hard stuff off for a bit longer? Now, to be honest, I’m not much of a procrastinator. I tend to meet deadlines without much problem and check items off my to-do list on a regular basis. But when I do procrastinate, I am exceptionally good at it. I’m especially gifted when it comes to finding completely unimportant things to do when there is something important that I really don’t want to do. Once, to avoid writing a paper I didn’t want to write, I managed to organize my CD collection by genre and artist; go through three years of old magazines; and test all the pens in my desk to see if they still worked. Pretty impressive, but none of it helped that paper get written. Sadly, procrastination almost never makes the dreaded task go away; it just makes it bigger and more imposing.
A couple of years ago, blogger Tim Urban gave a Ted Talk about procrastination that has been viewed nearly 17 million times. He describes procrastination as an epic battle between the rational decision-maker and the instant gratification monkey that live in our head. The rational decision-maker knows that it is necessary to do some unpleasant things that we would rather not do to achieve anything significant in life, whether that’s following through on a new year’s resolution to exercise and eat healthier, or showing up at a protest march, or sitting down for a difficult conversation with someone who tries your nerves. The instant gratification monkey, on the other hand, is the one saying “nah… let’s stay on the couch, binge on Netflix, and eat an entire bag of chips.” In this scenario, the instant gratification monkey has a significant advantage.

 

Thankfully, Urban points out, there’s a third party that comes riding to the rescue, the Panic Monster. See, the Panic Monster is the only thing that really frightens the instant gratification monkey and sends him scurrying off so that the rational decision maker can hunker down and finally get the thing done. The problem is that the Panic Monster is deadline or disaster-driven. But many important things don’t come with deadlines and don’t threaten certain disaster if they don’t get done right away. When it comes to eating healthier, or having that difficult conversation with a relative or colleague, or doing something truly significant to reduce our carbon footprint, for example, the Panic Monster never comes around, and the instant gratification monkey wins. Life goes on with that thing we need to do forever put off until another day. Until there isn’t another day.

 

So, clearly, procrastination isn’t a viable solution to dealing with a scary and uncertain future. It’s like that story about the grasshopper and the ant. Remember? The one where the grasshopper plays music all summer while the ants store away food for the winter, then when the winter comes, the grasshopper comes begging and the ants say, essentially, tough luck, you should have planned! Except, there are a couple of problems with that story. One, the ants are just mean and awful, and who wants to be like that? And, two, the thing that is driving their behavior is the weather, and according to systems science, weather is a “level one chaotic system.” This just means that the coming of winter is something we can predict with some degree of accuracy, but it’s not something that will change as a result of that prediction. So, as mean-spirited as the ants might be, we must admit that they are probably right that it is a good idea to plan and prepare for the winter because, for an insect, at any rate, the weather isn’t something you can change. It just is what it is. But the elements of the future that we’re discussing here are level TWO chaotic systems: politics, economics, cultural conflict, and human-driven environmental destruction. A level two chaotic system is something that is very difficult to predict, because the prediction itself causes the situation to change.
Here’s a hypothetical example: let’s say there are two candidates running for a major political office. The pundits and prognosticators agree that there is no way Candidate A could ever be elected. On the other hand, there is broad consensus among the expert predictors that Candidate B will win the election in a landslide. Most people believe the predictions, so maybe a few people cast their vote for Candidate A because they figure their vote is insignificant anyway. And maybe a few other people vote for that candidate because they don’t like experts telling them what they’re going to do; they prefer to be unpredictable. And before you know it, against all odds, the candidate who didn’t have a chance wins the election! Now, what happened in the 2016 election is obviously much, much more complicated than what I’ve presented here, but this little story does highlight a basic problem with trying to predict things like votes, or political movements, or any kind of mass, human activity. People are unpredictable in part because they’re influenced by predictions.
Sometimes a prediction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Something becomes true because we expect it to come true. A teacher expects a student to perform poorly, for example, so he doesn’t invest any effort into that student and, sure enough, the student does indeed fail. Other times, a prediction leads to self-defeating prophecy. Something does not happen because people react against the prediction. In the Netherlands, the national weather service once began predicting traffic jams. Drivers responded by avoiding the roads where the traffic was expected, so the traffic jams never happened, which made people lose faith in the ability of Dutch meterologists to predict traffic patterns.
So, returning to my question: given a frightening future, what are we to do? Obviously, procrastination isn’t the answer. And putting too much stock in predictions can lead us down the wrong path, with unintended consequences. Maybe, the answer is right there in our Six Sources of Unitarian Universalism, specifically in the second source: “Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”
What does it mean to be a prophetic person? It doesn’t mean to ignore the future or to prepare for it. Prophets are neither grasshoppers nor ants. They interfere with the future. They actively mess with it, not based on predictions but regardless of them. The thing about prophets is that they don’t just tell the future, they have a vision of a better future, a better world, and they use their words and actions to make that vision real. In the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, the prophet is the one who calls people “to cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Prophets may be scorned, mocked, even killed, but they remain firm in their vision of a more just and loving tomorrow.
According to the great theologian and civil rights leader, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prophet is one who will not remain indifferent to evil, who is incapable of remaining neutral, impartial or unmoved by the wrongs done to other people. And the prophet will not allow others to just explain away the social ills and misdeeds of greed, violence and oppression as “just the way things are.” In his book on the Hebrew prophets, Heschel writes, “To us, a single act of injustice–cheating in business, exploitation of the poor–is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us, injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”
In other words, the prophet is the ultimate Panic Monster. The prophet shakes up not just the instant gratification monkey but also the rational decision maker, the one who thinks she can plan and prepare for the future. To be rational in our Western culture is to invest one’s efforts in things that can be accomplished and to not waste time on things that have zero chance of succeeding. Our society shakes its collective head when presented with those dreamers who believe they can change the world, end war and greed, defeat white supremacy, smash the patriarchy, upend the systems that enrich the already rich and keep the poor in poverty. “You’ll never see that kind of change in your lifetime!” the prophets are warned, “so why bother?”
That prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” isn’t just a foundational principle for twelve step programs, it illustrates how many people define what it means to be responsible, or mature. But the prophetic Panic Monster doesn’t worry about predicting what actions might lead to tangible success. The prophet’s vision extends much further than her own lifetime or the lifetime of her children and, at the same time, the prophet is on a deadline, and the deadline is now. With a sense of urgency, the prophet looks far off into a better, more just, more loving future and asks, “what impossible thing must I do today?”
We have no way of knowing just what will happen in the coming year or in the coming decades for that matter, but we do know this. The world has all the rational decision makers and all the instant gratification monkeys that it needs. As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to a different task. We are called to shake things up, to do the hard work of confronting powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. It’s time.

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