I’m going to propose a thought experiment. If it isn’t too much trouble, I need you to look up. Do it.
Now. No one’s watching. Look around you. Study your surroundings. Now consider the possibility that at any moment, the end of the world could occur. The ground cracks, the clouds spark with red lightning, hungry waters rise. The sky hums with annihilating angels. Feel free to incorporate details from your preferred apocalypse, as long as they fit the overall scenario. Imagine the final crisis of man. Let us pretend that the sky is falling.
Now I would like you to prove, with absolute certainty, that this is not true. Never mind if you are inside, or even in some kind of reinforced bunker, because for the purposes of argument, the hypothetical bullet the universe has aimed at you will pierce any barrier. No rational force can protect you. You have literally moments to live, and you are wasting them reading.
No one is saying that the world is definitely about to end. You could probably construct a strong argument that my impending doomsday is actually pretty unlikely. You could cite research studies, endless statistics, and I’m sure all of these would be very accurate. But you have to recognize that all of this goes only so far. You can present your evidence to me and I can ask, “How do you know that’s right?” and then you can show me your citations and your annotated bibliography, but I can ask, “How do you know that’s right?” I can ask this again and again, as many times as I need to. A 5 percent margin of error is all well and good but will be small comfort if you are the unlikely one in 20 around when things get real.
The truth is that you cannot prove anything one way or the other. Everything is possible. We live in a world not of certainty but of endless incalculable risk. The music of the spheres is chaos.
Now, before you panic, I’m going to suggest a possible resolution to this situation: Open a book. You can postpone the apocalypse for as long as you like just by keeping the book open. The instant you shut it, however, everything will be destroyed. Again, I can’t prove to you that this is the case, but considering that we aren’t sure about the end of the world to begin with, I don’t think this is unreasonable. I know it will be inconvenient to keep the book open, and I am sympathetic, but it’s such a minor inconvenience considering what is at risk. Just keep it open, at least for a few more minutes. Then, when you get a chance, you can put it facedown on your desk and forget about it. Or you could nail it open to a plank of wood and hide it in the attic or something. It’ll ruin the spine, sure, but that’s a pretty minor sacrifice, considering you now hold in your hands the trigger to the extinction of all worlds.
But you tell me, “So what?” And you forget about the possibility of imminent destruction, and you go on with your day. May I congratulate you on your apparent sanity. I can continue the narrative, secure that your brain is functioning as advertised.
But imagine that “so what” was not good enough. Imagine that you could not live happily without absolute certainty, and that it seemed reasonable for you to keep the book open as long as you could. In this case, certain additional preventative measures would be prudent.
Fortunately, I just thought of some additional preventative measures. They won’t make or break the deal, of course, but they’ll help. Maybe. They shouldn’t hurt anyway.
Listen: When you hit page 100, make sure you lick your finger before you turn the page. Actually, you’d better do that every 10 pages. And when you do put the book down, make sure you shut the lights off before you leave the room — although it would probably be better if you flicked them twice first. Also, next time you’re out, make sure to write down the remaining time on any parking meters you see. And you know what? I’m going to need you to count things. Like red shoes or milk or something. Seriously, it doesn’t really matter what. Just start counting. Like maybe you see three cars go by — just one two three, like that. Just to be safe. Trust me, it’ll help, maybe.
Of course none of these behaviors will definitely prevent the apocalypse, but they might protect you, and in these dire circumstances, we need to do everything we can. These are inconveniences, but aren’t they preferable to the end of the world?
No. Not really, unfortunately. It is possible for a human being to reach a point where incineration in divine fire would actually increase cognitive and behavioral functionality.
It does not end here. It cannot. Tell me: How do you know that you won’t be killed by a falling meteor? How do you know that you shut off the toaster oven this morning? That one of the seething millions of bacteria on your hands will not kill you? That your friends don’t all secretly hate you? Do you have religion? Do you have the right religion? Are you sure? Are you a pedophile, a necrophiliac, a rapist? A murderer? How can you know that these tendencies do not dwell latent inside you, waiting for the right moment to evince themselves in the most horrific manner possible? How do you know that you are not a monster? How do you know that it isn’t the end of the world?
Everyone has moments when, against probability and common sense, we attempt to eradicate ordinary uncertainty using our minds. You get halfway around the block and then realize that you might have forgotten to lock the front door, so you drive back around to check it. It’s near the end of the seventh inning and things aren’t looking good, so you pull out your favorite baseball cap because sometimes it seems to help. You call your child’s phone twice to make sure that she got to the party okay. You cross your fingers, you knock on wood, you wish on a coin or a star or a stray eyelash. Everyone does this. It’s not a problem for most people.
For people with OCD however, it is a problem. OCD demands safety and certainty, and the fact that nothing can ever really be proven is regrettable but irrelevant to its purposes. OCD is the pathological intolerance of risk, however minute, and the surrender to protective ritual, however unbearable.
Copyright Fletcher Wortmann, 2012.
Excerpted and adapted from Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012”
Visit my website: http://www.fletcherwortmann.com/
Read my Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/triggered