So that was Christmas (to misquote John Lennon and Yoko Ono). And what have you done? Another year over, and a new one just begun. Lennon may have been singing about world peace, but as we all know, the world is rarely at peace. In the case of international relations, someone always seems to be fighting someone else. But closer to home, at least the stress of Christmas is behind us, and as a nation most of us get to relax.
It is a good time to reflect on how lucky we are. There are many Europeans and Americans, for example, who fear the future. Nevertheless, many New Zealanders will be quietly relieved 2012 is over, and cautiously optimistic that 2013 will somehow prove a better year.
This tendency to view the future with rose-tinted spectacles is an understandable psychological reaction to uncertainty. We couldn’t cope if we constantly believed our lives were going to get worse in the near future. And yet many of us have convinced ourselves – often contrary to the available evidence – that the world is going to hell in a handcart: that we are gradually destroying our environment, that politicians are growing ever-more corrupt and that civil society is growing less civil by the day. How to explain this paradox? One of the sanest voices on the subject is American intellectual Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, which is credited with predicting the 2008 financial crisis.
People who had only ever seen white swans, Taleb pointed out in his book, would be tempted to think there was no such thing as black swans – until they spotted one. This point seems so obvious, it’s hard to imagine it might come as a revelation. Yet Taleb has been lauded around the world for essentially pointing out why the emperor has no clothes in fields such as banking.
He is one of a new wave of thinkers who have successfully argued that the way to achieve peace is to embrace rationality, rather than emotion. Along with statistician Nate Silver, academic Daniel Kahneman and journalists such as Michael Lewis and Ben Goldacre, he has urged us to examine the evidence, rather than lazily jumping to conclusions.
In his latest book, Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand, Taleb examines this idea in much more detail, arguing it is not good enough to accept that random events occur. Where possible, we should try to anticipate them (by regulating the finance sector, for example). At the same time, he warns against the unintended consequences of trying to impose too much control on the chaos of life – creating even more problems through overprotective parenting, or artificially increasing money supply or over-diagnosing medical problems.
As for the future, it is futile to make predictions, he argues, because we don’t know what we don’t know. In print at least, Taleb is famously curmudgeonly, and has rightly been criticised for contradicting himself. Yet his message is actually a positive one. Life is inherently stressful, he suggests. The best way to deal with this is simply to accept it, while remaining true to your own principles.
As for the shock of the new, it is less shocking than it might seem, he argues. “To understand the future, you do not need techno-autistic jargon, obsession with ‘killer apps’, these sort of things,” he recently wrote in the New York Times. “You just need the following: some respect for the past, some curiosity about the historical record, a hunger for the wisdom of the elders and a grasp of the notion of heuristics – these often unwritten rules of thumb that are so determining of survival.” Although his latest book traverses many fields, including economics, politics, philosophy and medicine, one of the “takeaways” (to use the latest parlance) boils down to not much more than the famous sermon adopted by various 12-step programmes, including Alcoholics Anonymous.
The serenity prayer, as it is commonly known, recommends accepting things you cannot change, having the courage to change the things you can and having the wisdom to know the difference. As far as New Year’s resolutions go, they don’t come much wiser than that.