Surprise, Shock, and Uncertainty

A couple things I’ve been thinking about in the last week:

The world breaks every decade or so. There are so few exceptions to this it’s astounding.

What Covid-19 and the Ukrainian invasion have in common is that both have happened many times before but westerners considered them relics of history that wouldn’t resurface in their own modern lives. Maybe the common lesson is that there are difficult parts of humanity that can’t be outgrown.

However crazy the world looks, it can get crazier. History is just a long story of the unthinkable happening, precedents being broken, and people reading the news with bewilderment and denial.

“History doesn’t crawl; it leaps,” says Nassim Taleb. The most important events tend to be abrupt, out of the blue, changing the world before people have time to rub their eyes and understand what’s happening.

There is a “shock cycle” for all big news events. It goes like this:

In general people have no idea where they are in this cycle until after the fact.

Uncertainty amid danger feels awful. So it’s comforting to have strong opinions even if you have no idea what you’re talking about, because shrugging your shoulders feels reckless when the stakes are high. Complex things are always uncertain, uncertainty feels dangerous, and having an answer makes danger feel reduced. We want firm answers when things are the most uncertain, which is when firm answers don’t exist.

Historian B. H. Liddell Hart wrote:

We learn from history that complete victory has never been completed by the result that the victors always anticipate—a good and lasting peace. For victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, because victory breeds among the vanquished a desire for vindication and vengeance and because victory raises fresh rivals.

At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara left an emergency briefing at the Pentagon and walked outside. He later wrote: “It was a beautiful fall evening, and I went up into the open air to look and to smell it, because I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see.” Estimates were that in a full-blown nuclear war there would be 100 million deaths in the first hour.

What was avoided during those days is probably the most important news event in human history. But since it’s something that didn’t happen, it’s now just a neglected footnote. It probably left us with a false sense of security, blind to how dangerous it can be when one or two powerful and often crazy people can hold everyone else hostage.

Historian Dan Carlin recently wrote:

For all its evil, war sometimes has a tiny silver lining. It can clarify the mind and reboot our ethical compass. It puts less serious things in perspective. It nudges us towards our neighbor and reminds us that our needs and interests are intertwined. It reignites our compassion.

That’s the great irony of war, one I never know how to reconcile: So many of the greatest things we value came from the worst events we pray to avoid.

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