On Handling Uncertainty

“In fire and other emergency operations, you must not merely tolerate uncertainty, you must savor it. Or you won’t last long. The most efficient preparation is a general mental, physical, and professional readiness nurtured over years of training and experience. You live to live. Preparing is itself an activity and action is preparation.”
—Peter Leschak, Professional Firefighter

We understood the value of hurricane shutters and generators very well in October of 2004. We had taken direct hits from two Category 4 storms within two weeks of each other in September. It was an unimaginable experience, even for Floridians.  The flooding, power outages and property damage were unprecedented. After the fact, you can be sure that we all hastened to acquire shutters and generators to be ready for the next one, but it would havc been so much smarter to have been prepared beforehand.

We are right in the middle of hurricane season, but I’m thinking about another kind of preparation. The Elliott Wave forecast for the next several years is for a bear market that wipes out ninety percent of the values of the stock market, the real estate and commodity markets, and plunges the nation into a deflationary depression. Should this happen, it will qualify as a Black Swan–an event that has enormous impact, which is generally held to be of such low probability beforehand as to be incomputable,  and, later, will be said to have been easily predicted by the very same people who earlier denied its possibility.

How do we prepare for a Black Swan? It may never happen. And even if it does, there is no blueprint for how a Grand Supercycle depression plays out. Will grocery stores run out of food? Or will farmers have so much it’s rotting on the roadside? Will there be a bank holiday? In 1934 the banks were shut for four days. Obviously, it’s a good idea to have some cash around in case there is a  failure in the system and suddenly credit and debit cards don’t work at ATMs and in grocery stores. Survivalists stock up on food and guns and gold, and hunker down for end times. Jeez, that’s so weenie. Spineless really, and retro-barbaric just at the time when what is needed is courage, civility and community.

The way we prepare for Black Swans is to cultivate the ability to quickly get past the normal freak-out we experience when disaster strikes, so we can get right into the solution.

In Deep Survival, who Lives, Who Dies and Why, Laurence Gonzales listed the actions taken by people he interviewed who survived near impossible circumstances: Convert your immediate response–fear–into anger. Use the anger to motivate you to act. Don’t project. Stay in the moment. Be curious about, even fascinated by what you are going through. Treat it like a learning experience. Break the problem down to smaller ones. Solve the most pressing small problem. Reward yourself with a fist pump for a little victory. Use the little victory to go on to the next thing. Summon your sense of humor–laugh at your predicament. Be grateful for the moment. Enjoy the beauty that surrounds you even while you’re in serious peril. Look out for others, share what you have. Don’t sit down. Keep moving ahead.

No matter how things work out, you’ll be more alive than you ever have been. And, if you live another fifty years, the time when the situation was extreme and the odds were stacked against you will define you. It will be your fondest recollection.

Hurricane parties are a favorite of the hedonists among us: get a bunch of beer and ride out the storm in a mental fog. Not sure I agree, but whenever I think about the 2004 hurricane season, I think about coming back to our house on the barrier island, three days after the first storm hit, on the night when the evacuation order was lifted. The streets were nearly impassable with the flooding, debris, and fallen trees. We had no power, which meant no lights, no refrigeration, no cooking and, in that muggy post-hurricane atmosphere, no air conditioning.

It was dark, hot, and we were miserable and hungry. We found some bacon and some bread and lettuce and tomatoes and mayonnaise we were willing to trust. We cooked the bacon on our gas grill outside and, as we were doing that, heard from some friends nearby who had less in the way of provisions than we did. We had them over, sat out amidst the rubble that used to be our deck, and shared our BLTs with them. It was a fine evening and one of the best meals we ever had.





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