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Imagining the Worst Case Scenario

When it Serves and When it Doesn’t

Last fall, I visited my friend Leah in the rolling hills of Northern California’s Sonoma County. I followed her from room to room, exclaiming at how perfectly her unique tastes had made themselves known in her new house. New to her that is; the house was built thirty years ago. As we settled onto stools in her kitchen, Leah slid a bottle of wine across her quartz countertop and said, “We’ll need a drink before the rest of this tour.”

Opening the door to the garage, she clutched onto my arm and told me to look up. Running from front to back, next to the demising wall of the house, was a crack in the ceiling at least an inch wide. An admittedly startling sight, it looked as if the garage might be trying to make a run for it.

What Leah saw when she looked at that crack was, “The house is falling apart, it might end up being condemned and I’ll probably end up homeless.” When she saw the shocked look on my face, she softened her approach to say that she would at least have to move after tearfully disclosing the issue to the new buyers and losing every cent she’d invested. 

“Wow,” I said. “All I see is a crack.”

My Buddhist training has so thoroughly managed to strip away the need to embellish or entertain a storyline I have no clue about, that I had no other response. After an uncomfortable moment, I asked her what she gained by telling herself something that most likely wasn’t true and she said she was just getting herself ready for bad news by imagining the worst case scenario. “After all,” she said, “isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”

When I mentioned how that increased anxiety and asked if she’d tried imagining the best case scenario, she looked at me skeptically. “The reality is that you have a crack in your house. That is the only thing you know. Any thoughts beyond that are your choice, because the future isn’t here and the stories haven’t happened.”

Months later, with this conversation still fresh in my mind, I looked up the definition of worst-case scenario and read that it’s a concept in risk management wherein the planner, in planning for potential disasters, considers the most severe possible outcome that can reasonably be projected to occur in a given situation. This research coincided with the global eruption of the coronavirus and the perfectly-timed series on Netflix called Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak.

Knowing there are highly-educated, skillful, and creative scientists and physicians working to find a one-shot, broad-spectrum influenza innoculation is a wonderful thing. So is watching a team in action battling Ebola. Because even though history reminds us that human and natural disasters have always been with us, if there is useful fear in the world, these are the people I want to be terrified. So while those teams of qualified professionals make a living by considering the worst case scenario, why did I find it odd that my friend had done the same?

Basing presumptions on past patterns, evidence-based analysis, and likely repeated occurrences is good science. Basing a presumption on no information and seeing yourself in a position (homeless) that wouldn’t reasonably ever happen (she has family with resources) is not good science. It is being negative in the future; the very definition of the word worry. Leah’s reaction was purely emotional and based on a socially-reinforced mindset she’d adopted without stopping to think it through.

And we all do this. Based on nothing more than a reptilian brain wired for survival and the natural human drive toward the negativity bias, we absorb destructive clichés into our lives as cultural conditioning and forget to apply appropriate mental and verbal hygiene to our particular circumstances. In our fast-paced world, we forget to slow down, take a deep breath, and shift perspectives according to what we do know.

Without science, we learn little from our anxiety. It does not beget transferable information nor is it the kind of productive foreboding that provides knowledge we can build on. We also can’t gird ourselves for the next time it may happen because our personal concerns are typically one-off acute dilemmas rather than chronic boomerang ones.

In the end, Leah’s contractor blamed the house settling—long after it should have—on drought due to climate change. The adobe soil dried beyond expected levels. Repairs were completed and my friend continues to live in her lovely little corner of the world, a bit more able to scrutinize life’s challenges without resorting to baseless worst-case scenarios.

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