So, I read Carl Hiaasen’s commencement speech-in-book-form the other day (it’s not very long; you could probably read it in 30 minutes or so), titled, Assume the Worst: The Graduation Speech You’ll Never Hear. Which actually angered me, because you seldom see a work so determined to undermine itself.
In particular, he was extolling the virtues of planning ahead, carefully saving and planning for your future. The title refers to your interactions with other people, which would’ve been some nice advice for the news media to follow when covering the campaign of The Donald. No one assumed the worst, and, as a result, we got far worse than the worst.
In the annals of Egregious Crimes Committed by Baby Boomers upon future generations, near the top of the list will be, “Assume the future will look predictably similar than it does, now.” That little advice — handed down, subtly through time, immemorial, in parables like The Grasshopper and the Ant, relies on the implicit — and completely unsupported — hypothesis that humans can predict the future and adequately prepare for that. History does not support either of those assumptions, which is why we’re now undergoing climactic upheavels not seen since the Triassic.
Here’s one for actually assuming the worst: assume you’ll be dead next month. That doesn’t mean you’re going to quit your job, skip out on rent, or any of that, but it does mean you’re going to get your priorities a little more in order. As someone who’s heard the second-worst news possible — that I have a 50% chance of living to see 38 (there’s no such thing as “lucky” cancer, until you have it), and a much lower chance of living to see 43. I arrived at that unfortunate set of circumstances by waiting to get into a vaccine trial when this was originally diagnosed as a rare, recurrent, low-grade tumor. In the six-ish months it took to get a slot in that vaccine trial, my disease jumped several grades to cancerous, and disqualified me from the vaccine trial.
The great cheat that all previous generations have told us is, “Focus on the future,” and, when our attention was turned, they stole that future by focusing on the present.
The person who really took that advice about preparing for the future to heart was my father, who did everything right — focused on career and savings, passed up immediate chances to travel or do what he might have wanted — and now is somewhat comfortably retired, but has chronic cancer and a few other chronic diseases that keep him from his retirement goals of traveling and gardening. I’m sure he’s not alone. All the money in the world now will mean jack in 20 years if global warming continues. If current trends continue.
As a society, we’ve become so future-focused that we don’t actually do anything about it, and that then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. My generation can’t plan for retirement, can’t afford to buy real estate (which is going to be an unbelievably bad bet if you’re anywhere near a coast) because we’re collectively headed toward the brink of disaster. That’s the point of mindfulness or living in the moment — because the future is a sucker’s bet, and we tend to focus on it at the expense of the moment, which is how magicians, pick-pockets, and con-men operate (to condense Apollo Robbins’ teachings). So, do that; assume the worst. Assume you’ll be dead in a week, and it’ll change how you move through the world. I know; I had to operate under that assumption for a year, and I’ll have to learn how to operate under it again far sooner than I expect. Don’t let anyone deter you from something you need right now, and don’t hold back in pursuit of that. Assume you’ll have different priorities in six months; assume the world will be dramatically different in ways you can not imagine now; those are the only safe assumptions.
“ Think to yourself that every day is your last; the hour to which you do not look forward will come as a welcome surprise.” — Horace