The Human Side: Foresight versus afterthought

Human beings have had a long time to figure out the rules by which the world — and the universe in which it goes around — works.

“There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”  George Santayana

Human beings, it seems to me, are great problem-solvers. We have great energy for it and do it well. However, we aren’t such good “thinkers-ahead.” That, we don’t do well. In some cases, we don’t do it at all.

We have always had shouters of doom and gloom among us. We still manage to harvest our crops, gather our vegetables, slaughter the pigs, cows, chickens, lambs and anything else needed to hold us over winter and even make a party or two, as well as make our coats for the winter. We survive winter itself and, after spring has passed, learn to complain about the heat of summer — and the tourists from Alberta and elsewhere. We say those who shout doom and gloom are “looking backward.” That’s much easier to do. But we aren’t anywhere near as good at seeing problems in advance.

Human beings have had a long time to figure out the rules by which the world — and the universe in which it goes around — works. We have had time to figure out the rules and adapted them into our knowledge, to be passed on. Still, we don’t think about the sabre-toothed tiger until it jumps out of the rocks and starts eyeing us for lunch. Only then do we see how silly it was to carry the results of our morning hunt as we whistled obliviously on our way home. We do the same with driving, and a thousand other things.

We’ve had such a long time, yet we still aren’t very good at it. In fact, it often seems we don’t really get a look at the dangers with which we share our territory. Then we feel caught by surprise when the dangers stand right in front of us and bite us in uncomfortable places.

When that happens, we think and move as fast as we can. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to think or move as fast (or with as many options) as we would like.

People commonly make that mistake. It’s a bit like walking into known rattlesnake territory wearing only shorts and sandals, and then being surprised by the bite. We very frequently don’t think about the consequences of our decisions and actions. Anyone else will tell us about our mistake, afterwards. We’ve all seen it a million times. It’s before the event we don’t think enough. And it’s the “before” sort of thinking we need, more than the “after.”

We aren’t the first to think of this. Sometime in the early Greek period (he lived from 270 BC to 341 BC), a philosopher named Epicurus said something like, “Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” He doesn’t use modern language, but it’s the same sort of thought.

There’s very little doubt in my mind now, after so many years of making mistakes, that we humans are not very good at “pre-thinking.” We are far better at thinking “after.”  At least, it seems, I am.

Afterwards. Looking back.

Fred Elford is a retired international organization development consultant, living in Invermere, where he spends his time with bonsai trees. He can be reached at fredelford@