We live in interesting times. The uncertainty we face contributes mightily to making them so interesting. Uncertainty attracts us to those who can offer a glimpse of what the future holds. We find these glimpses calming, even if the future they portray is grim.
One word used to describe people who can tell the future is soothsayer. This word does not come up in common parlance much anymore. The profession of soothsaying is an old one. Oracles and diviners were soothsayers, as are today’s psychics, astrologers, and Tarot readers. Soothsaying, as a profession, is as important to us as ever. When we ask experts to warn us about the next economic downturn, extreme weather event, or political quagmire, they fill the same archetypal role that oracles and diviners played in centuries past.
When I was in graduate school years ago, people talked about Peak Oil. Proponents of this idea believed global oil production would reach a high point around 2010 and decline thereafter as the resource grew scarce. Owing to the world’s utter dependence on petroleum, cataclysm would ensue once the peak passed. Like many soothsayers’ prophesies, the Peak Oilers’ failed to come to fruition. Global oil production has had its ups and downs, but the economy chugs on, for better and for worse.
I bring up Peak Oil to illustrate another side of soothsaying. The vision of the future that soothsayers offer is rarely neutral. When we feel uncertain about how we will meet our needs, we feel unsafe. This can trigger our nervous system’s stress response, leading to, among other things, feelings of anxiety. Chronic uncertainty, especially about meeting important needs, can lead to psychological and even physical distress. Uncertainty can literally make us sick.
When we meet someone who confidently presents their vision of the future, that vision can soothe us. It narrows our sense of what is possible, and provides boundaries within which we can plan. It can offer a subtle message to our nervous system: It is okay, we know what is coming now, and we can plan for it. A good soothsayer can work wonders for a dysregulated nervous system.
This leads us to soothsaying’s sinister side. Sometimes we are so desperate for a sense of calm that we accept visions offered by charlatans. I have been reading a lot about cults lately, and just finished Rick Alan Ross’ book Cults Inside Out. While not all of the cults Ross describes organized around a dystopian vision of the future, many did. Reading through them it was clear to me that the sense of calm their charismatic leader offered was powerful medicine for many of their adherents, at least initially. Dystopian, even apocalyptic, visions attract certain types of people. Their calming effect comes from their confirmation bias, and perhaps their ability to play on cultural stereotypes.
I suspect many of my readers share my keen interest in where things are headed. Between the ongoing pandemic and climate crisis, among many other issues, I feel beset with uncertainty and the stress and anxiety it brings. I would relish better information on what to expect in the coming years and decades.
Yet I also recognize this longing for a clearer vision of the future makes me vulnerable. It leaves my nervous system dysregulated, even if subtly, and it opens me to being taken advantage of by a sweet-talking, charismatic charlatan who offers visions and prophesies in return for a little cash, or other things. Having fell for the Peak Oil catastrophist cult years ago, I know I am susceptible to being swept away by the sense of calm that similar visions offer, even if that calm is fleeting and superficial.
Soothsaying is a deeply consequential undertaking. It deserves far more critical inquiry than we offer it, in my opinion. With that in mind, who are your soothsayers? Who do you turn to for information about what the future holds? Who do you look to for visions of where things are headed? Whose lead do you follow when it comes time to prepare for the future? What criteria do you use to choose your soothsayers?
These are worthy questions to carry. I hope they serve you well.
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