When the Best-Case Scenario Is to Prevent the Worst

photo from portlandonline.com

A worker stays late on a Tuesday to avoid a hellishly busy Wednesday. A family forgoes a vacation to dodge delinquency on debts. A business owner cancels a scheduled wage increase to avert layoffs. Facing down a dilemma in which all feasible outcomes are bad is no epic saga. It happens every day. The healthy response is to motivate yourself to soberly take steps to mitigate the damage. There’s no triumph in the end result, but there’s a sense of relief and, occasionally, even satisfaction in having avoided outright disaster. In the lives of individual Americans, such decisions are reality, plain and simple.

At a national level, however, choices like these tend to be deferred, sidetracked, or abandoned altogether. Collective aspirations demand vision, vigor, and ultimately victory. Resignation and realism are killjoys. But increasingly, the U.S. is confronting large problems that have no chance of being conquered completely and ending in jubilation. In a variety of domains — the national debt, energy, the environment, public health, among others — recurrent, if not permanent, crisis is the new reality. The only sensible response is for citizens to take the difficult measures that are necessary to avert catastrophe, knowing full well that the best-case scenario is still a grim one. But how do you sell that kind of cruel gruel to a nation bloated on Cheetos, chips, and light sweet crude?

The gulf between what we expect and what we can realistically have is wider than it’s ever been in America. A course correction of unprecedented magnitude is in order. Casting the net wider and thinking bigger and bolder are, however, not the ways to take on the daunting challenge. Only in thinking small can substantive things be achieved when the aims are, by definition, not bloated.

The solution is to be found in the spirit of mundane, individual acts of sacrifice that people understand because they’ve been there. It’s familiar psychological territory, and most folks have found ways to make it not so grim. What they’ve never explicitly been asked to do is to downsize the most unrealistic of their national expectations — in short, to find relief, satisfaction, and maybe even pride in coming together not to achieve the impossible but to temper the threat of the worst-case scenario, much as they do in their own lives.

Consider the person who weatherproofs and fortifies the structure of her house to prevent the worst of the havoc that a storm could wreak. If the storm is powerful, some degree of damage is inevitable, and the homeowner knows that. The envisioned best-case scenario is no picnic, yet in putting in the time, energy, and money necessary to avert the worst, she can find satisfaction, peace of mind, and even pleasure in the preparations. “I’ve done what I can” fills the belly like a hearty oatmeal breakfast, even if it’s not tantalizing to the tongue.

Imagine this kind of sensible resolve applied to threats on a larger scale. We know, for instance, that widespread coastal flooding is coming as polar ice melts, even if carbon emissions are halted immediately. Instead of continuing to build recklessly on waterfronts, why not cast it as both a national and a local priority to rethink and redraw the boundaries between land and sea, thereby reducing the chances of a future worst-case scenario? There’s a sense of mission to be found in such planning. Yes, the message must be delivered with a calm voice and the plans executed with steady hands so that resolve does not balloon into alarm. But by drawing parallels with the individual choices that we all routinely make to avert disaster, we can stiffen our collective resolve into a strong national backbone.

Not all of these efforts need to be universal, of course. Even within narrower interests, such as that of political parties, best-case scenarios that nonetheless remain grim can be motivators. Take, for example, midterm Congressional elections in which the party that holds the presidency almost inevitably loses seats. That knowledge, once the sole province of experts, has trickled down to the masses. The awareness now itself inhibits turnout among voters who affiliate themselves with the president. Many assume, “We can’t win anyway, so why bother voting?” Indeed, the best-case scenario probably is a modest loss, but neglecting to act in the face of that loss ensures a worst-case blowout victory by the other side.

“Vote late on Tuesday to avoid a hellish Wednesday” is a message most people can grasp, even if it’s not as thrilling as the promise of a heavenly win. Seeing collective aims through the lens of a common-sense need to “do what you can” in the face of an inevitably negative outcome can achieve more than pundits and political operatives suspect. But, true, it won’t achieve victory. No horns will blare. The aims of this vision are not lofty.

It is Tuesday. I plan to work late. Wednesday will not be paradise, but if I have any say in the matter, it won’t be hell either.