If you have been daily doom scrolling social media apps looking for a little hope in this season of hell we are all trapped in, you are not alone.
There was a man in my town who could predict the weather. It was said that he had a better track record than Met Éireann, the Irish national meteorological service, and some locals simply swore by him.
He didn't just tell you how the weather would go for the week, but for the month and the year. If you farmed, and many of us did, that was useful information.
Asked how he did it, he was cryptic but he gave us some scant details. He deduced some of it from the flight patterns of the birds, he said. They could tell you a lot if you took the time to observe them.
The way they congregated or flew off alone, or the way they rested on the roads in the early morning, long before the world began stirring. I recall he also said something about the upper cloud formations.
They contained seasonal indicators, he said. It all seemed like nonsense to me.
As well the weather, this man sometimes predicted things like important world events, significant births and deaths, and derby day winners.
You can imagine there was particular interest in the latter. Hearing that he was consulted for racing tips copper-fastened my impression that he must be a crank, but people still consulted him like a Delphic oracle.
Wanting to know how it all turns out is a deeply human response in an age of anxiety – and I'm speaking about Ireland before the Celtic Tiger when we were always anxious. It's an impulse to peek behind the curtain that stretches back to the earliest human civilizations and has stayed until the present day.
Queen Elizabeth I of England was guided by an astrologer named John Dee. Adolf Hitler's elite stormtroopers the SS were up to their eyes in occult mumbo jumbo, looking for divine guidance and heavenly approval for the hellish things they were doing on earth. Here in the US, it was eventually revealed that President Reagan and wife Nancy relied on the stars for daily guidance throughout their time in the White House.
What this means is that leaders often look for some leadership outside themselves. It means that no course is so fixed and fated that it's completely inescapable. We should be happy about that prospect not anxious, I think. It can remind us there is still an element of choice when it looks like the path we are on is the only one we can follow.
If you have been daily doom scrolling social media apps looking for a little hope in this season of hell we are all trapped in, you are not alone. Many people have had enough of the fear and dread that the pandemic has parked on our doorsteps, and are hoping for a little divine or scientific intervention to bring this ghastly era to a close.
The thing to do though is not to be too ready to surrender to the first prophet good news that comes along. This is a season for caution, not celebration. Some unscrupulous people clearly want to make political hay of public anxiety, thereby enriching themselves and their own fortunes.
I have watched as unscrupulous political leaders have pushed back hard against vaccine mandates and mask mandates recently, citing their supposed ineffectiveness against the coronavirus and its viral mutations. These men and women hope to personally rise by exploiting the anxieties and prejudices of the people who support them.
This is a cynical conjurer's trick that doesn't hope to help the community, as the man in my town once did. On the contrary, it's a trick to get the community to elevate the conjurer at their own expense. If they heed his or her reckless predictions, they will be harmed rather than helped. And it's happening right now across the nation.
Perhaps it is wiser not to listen to self-appointed political prophets, these phony physicians. It is certainly not wise to listen to anyone who claims to know more about viruses and epidemics than the physicians that monitor them daily.
But we are in a strange moment in this nation's history where what people want to hear has clearly become more important to them than what is actually happening. Millions of us have already retreated into the lunatic internet conspiracy theories of groups like Q-Anon, or anti-vax and anti-mask conspiracies, and many others.
That makes more and more of us set up for always approaching unscrupulous leaders who will tell us everything we want to hear. That will allow them to lead more and more of us away from reality toward a fantasy land of heart's desire. That journey, history shows us, never ends well.