Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Can Symmetrical Vision Be Achieved?

American novelist and short story writer Alice Hegan Rice once declared, “It ain’t no use putting up your umbrella till it rains.”1 Rice’s view mirrors that of most of the groups and communities we have visited in Never Saw It Coming. For most of us, there appears little ability to see the worst, little reason to acknowledge it until it happens. We have seen that such blindness appears especially acute within American culture. Yet the practice extends well beyond the American experience. In a host of examples, across contexts and throughout history, I have shown that positive asymmetry, as a way of seeing the world, proves the road more traveled, the medicine most often prescribed.

And yet there are times, so many times, when we regret our inability to imagine the worst. And during such times, we bemoan our biased perceptual tendencies. If only you had thought to perform more faithful breast selfexams, stopped smoking twenty years ago, agreed to call a cab after drinks with friends. If only you had seen the signals that your partner was unhappy, given more thought to financing your old age, considered the potential for violence in the tormented, lonely child at your school. If only the FBI’s top brass had seen the Phoenix memo, the FBI and CIA had communicated more directly, NASA’s managers had heeded their engineers’ warnings. If only— probably two of the most frequently uttered words in the American lexicon.

Is there a way to avoid the “if only’s” that seem to travel with positive asymmetry? Can anything we have learned in Never Saw It Coming help us pinpoint the moment at which to “open our umbrellas,” a moment that does not dampen the spirit and yet mitigates regret? The answer to these questions grows from this book’s chief lessons.

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