What if we knew how things would end before they began?
What if every time we opened a book, we started with the last page? Or if every time we ordered something from the menu, we knew how it would taste?
Would we want that?
The last line of a song by Devotchka has been bouncing around in my head. The song is How It Ends, and the last line is, “Yeah, you already know how this will end.” As soon as these words pass, of course, the song has ended, leaving you to wonder whether they refer reflexively (and perhaps ironically) to the song itself, or to some outside situation as narrow as a particular story or as broad as life itself.
It got me to thinking (as I suppose is apparent from the fact that I’m writing about it here) that we probably wouldn’t want to live in a world in which endings were known and outcomes were assured. Much of the unduplicable zest of life comes precisely from wondering just what the food will taste like or how the story will be resolved.
Well, you say, these are only trivial examples. Of course we want to be surprised by fiction or food, but not by the big things—relationships, home purchases, our investments, and the like. These are, perhaps, areas in which we wish to lock down the results and proceed towards a fixed outcome.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know which stocks would pay off, which home would triple in value, and which man or woman was the one with whom a first date would blossom into a solid and loving marriage? If that were the case, we would all certainly make much better choices…
… wouldn’t we?
Of course, many if not most industries trade on some degree of risk. Many institutions would simply cease to exist if outcomes were known in advance. Consider the stock market, all forms of betting and gambling, and the accompanying sports and other competitions of skill, just to name a few. Demand would either skyrocket or plummet given the known future value of a commodity, while the insurance industry would either collapse or become even more extortionate than it already is. The dating industry, by comparison, would suffer a major setback, as people would need only one date to determine whether this one was the one—and, by necessary implication, divorce lawyers would find themselves entirely out a job.
Oh, there might be some positive side effects. Government programs might be scrapped before—rather than after—they had wasted millions (if not billions) of taxpayer dollars on unachievable goals. Doomed aircraft or vessels or vehicles would never take off, set sail, or leave the driveway, and countless hearts would never be broken.
Yet for all that we may sometimes express a desire for a world filled with certainty rather than risk, I would suggest that we do not really want to know in advance the outcome of every venture, the success of every march. In fact, we don’t even live as though this is our wish—nor should we.
Despite all the uncertainty of beginning any great undertaking, every year millions of people enroll in college, change careers, move to a new place, and (yes) even get married. No one ever knows how these decisions will end or what the future will bring as a result of making such choices, but we—all of us—make them just the same.
Why do we do that?
It’s not because we’re gluttons for punishment. No one would ever willingly sign up for a college dropout or an unsatisfying new job or an unwelcoming new home or an empty marriage. That’s simply not how we’re wired.
Nor is it because we really enjoy uncertainty. All sorts of human behaviors demonstrate that we attempt to minimize uncertainty whenever possible. We invest. We buy insurance for everything from plane tickets to our own lives. We fireproof our homes, waterproof our attire when we go out in the rain, and (try to) injury-proof our children before they ride their bikes. No, we don’t like uncertainty.
And yet we keep opting for it—not because it’s something we enjoy, but because the negative feeling of uncertainty is outweighed by a much more powerful positive feeling: hope.
We take big leaps like relocation and marriage because we have hope: hope that the grass will be greener, hope that investment will pay off, hope that promises will be kept.
Are we stupid to do this, in a world that keeps demonstrating the apparent futility of hope? In a world where jobs often turn out to be failures, homes often turn out to be money pits, and marriages are often shattered by divorce?
I’m not sure.
But what I am sure of is this: while we may sometimes think we want to live in a world without uncertainty, we definitely do not want to live in a world without hope.
And that’s exactly what would happen if outcomes were always certain and secure. There would be no hope because there would be no reason for it. Why hope for an outcome you already know will occur? Why hope for anything when the result is always known?
Yes, the leaps we take and the plunges we make often end without success. And in the process, we often get hurt. Sometimes, the pain is enough to make us feel like complete and utter fools for ever daring to hope at all.
But we do it because we enjoy that taste—the taste of hope. We take risks, get messy, and even make fools of ourselves because the experience of hope is delicious, tantalizing, and so incredibly human. Indeed, I really think we wouldn’t be human without it.
We do not already know how it ends, nor do we wish to. The constant possibility of renewed hope makes even the darkest mistakes bearable—and, in the process, mercifully makes the future ever more attractive than the past.