OUR IMAGINATION IS THE WORST

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In our Big Question—what's the worst that could happen?—Ann Wroe suggests the fretful mind calls down horror on itself... 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

You lose your sight. Your house burns down, with everything lost. You contract a terrible, lingering disease. Your children die before you. A tsunami obliterates your town. An asteroid strikes. The air is turned to poison gas. Humankind immolates itself on a pyre of carbon-fuelled self-indulgence. 

To picture these things is to dwell on unrelieved darkness: to bring horror, grief, the cold fist in the belly, the struggle for breath, into the quotidian comfort of our lives. Yet if we experienced them wholly, rather than in part, the darkness would surely reveal—as only the dark can—unexpected gleams of light. Without our sight, we would hear, taste and touch more keenly. Without possessions, we might treasure anew what we get and are given, and start afresh on a new uncluttered life. Struck down by grievous illness, we would find resilience from somewhere. Robbed of the future we imagined for our children, we might eventually discover how rich the unimagined past has been, for knowing them. Those who have actually been through these miseries assure us that it can be so.

For some, the worst that can happen is evidently death. But there is nothing evident about it. None of us knows for certain what follows the end of the body. Socrates, on the point of drinking hemlock, reflected that he would go either to restful oblivion, or to an eternity of good life and better conversation; and neither was to be dreaded. Or, if we distrust the ancient wisdom, we can listen to Walt Whitman, who saw daily the worst that civil-war artillery could do to young men, and who held their hands through the agony of hacksaw-and-brandy surgery, and watched them die: "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, / And if ever there was, it led forward life".  

The fearful, fretful mind takes no account of this capacity to endure and overcome. Instead, it calls down horror on itself. Milton (who comforted himself with the thought of other blind poets, and trusted that his own blindness would open him to Celestial Light, shining inwardly) perhaps put it best, in "Comus":

Peace Brother, be not over-exquisite
To cast the fashion of uncertain evils;
For grant they be so, while they rest unknown
What need a man forestall his date of grief
And run to meet what he would most avoid?

In other words, the worst that can happen is to imagine the worst that can happen.

What do you think is the worst that could happen? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Robert Guest on famine, Edward Carr on war, Irving Wardle on cultural erosion, Clive Stafford Smith on fear and and Kah Walla on Africa unfulfilled.

Ann Wroe is the obituaries editor of The Economist and author of "Orpheus: The Song of Life"

Picture: detail from Dürer's woodcut "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", 1498 (Scala)