Cassandra was a Trojan princess who caught the eye of Apollo, God of the Sun. Apollo tried to woo her, but Cassandra played coy. She agreed to sleep with Apollo only if he would give her the gift of prophecy. He agreed and granted her request. However, when the time came to pay the piper, Cassandra deferred.
Apollo was furious, but he could not take his gift back. He did, however, make it so that no one would ever believe any of Cassandra’s predictions. These included Helen being the cause of the fall of Troy, and the Greeks hiding within the wooden horse.
Cassandra knew her beloved city was going to be sacked and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.
No one would listen.
Troy fell and Cassandra came to a horrible end, brutally raped by the Greek commander Ajax in the temple of Athena.
Such dark times we live in. Despite a never-ending curiosity for current events, I find myself shrinking away from news and wanting to escape reality.
I’m sure I’m not the only one.
When I was a child, books were often my only friends. How wonderful it was to experience the wonders of love without ever having fallen in love. And to visit lands and times never accessible to me. I was blessed with an imagination that let me slip into any shoes I wanted, especially when the ones I wore became unbearable.
A beautiful, misunderstood princess? Done.
A weathered, traumatized assassin? Done again.
A noble martyr? You bet!
Over time, one starts to gain a predictive flair. Most books have a formula, even the ones that try to surprise us. Once we understand the world of the book and the characters involved—we start predicting the outcome with greater and greater accuracy.
To be honest, few stories surprise me anymore, movies included. At least, few good ones. I know that probably sounds pretentious, but let me defend myself. We can surprise people with terrible and abrupt endings, but that’s not the goal of good fiction. Characters, if written to be believable, will follow fairly predictive paths. If the story is to flow naturally, character-wise at least, then the plot and the interactions between characters follow a trajectory. Over time, we realize that there is one of three or so possibilities in any given plot twist.
Some might argue that I am describing only “formulaic” books or heaven’s forbid, “flat characters.”
I’m not. Books, even fantastical ones, will mimic real life in that they must follow certain rules. Even the most complex characters must “stay in character.” So those crazy, unpredictable characters— follow trends. This is the key to predicting the outcome of the story.
In fact, it is the key to predicting the outcome of any story. Including our own.
Thus, my love of reading gave me the unexpected ability to predict the conclusion of a storyline oftentimes within the first few pages of the book.
I had become a Prophet.
I do have examples to back up my claim. For those who know me, I am something of a love guru in my narrow circle.
So half a year ago, I had drinks with my friend who was introducing me, for the first time, to her new boyfriend. He was lovely. He was charismatic. She was glowing. They shared their food. Finished each other’s sentences, all that cute stuff.
I watched their mannerisms, I listened to their dialogue, I understood their goals, I learned their values. I spent time just listening, laughing, bantering. I had a great time!
I foresaw conflict.
Whether you agree or not, I say nothing. I almost always do when I get my weird premonitions. Couples go through lots of things, none of them are perfect. But I had inside information on my friend, I knew her character extremely well, I knew what she could tolerate over time and what would grate on her like a hangnail.
But that night, I was just a friend meeting a lovely boy for the first time. They both seemed mostly happy and I wanted to maintain that happiness.
Just like the ending of that nail-bitingly exciting movie, I keep it to myself.
Of course the hero will have to kill himself in order to prevent his future self from killing the woman he loves. It’s the only way to prevent the boy from growing up and destroying the world. Duh! (Instead, I just stuff my face with greasy popcorn.)
I continue to spend time with the pair and take mental notes here and there, but I try not butt in. Months later, my friend really does ask me if I thought she and her boyfriend were right for each other.
I was no longer wearing my friend hat just then; I was called in to be a Prophet. I told her what I thought. She was unhappy with me. She did not speak to me for another month.
They did, however, break up.
Did they break up because I said something? I highly doubt that. Did I speed up the break up because I said something? Perhaps, but I could have just as easily slowed it down. I’m a character myself in every story, and so can affect trajectories.
If I lived in ancient times, would I be considered a prophetess? Honored and revered or burned for witchery?
The truth is, there is no witchery or magic to predicting the future. Only reading. Lots and lots of reading. And recognizing the telltale signs of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing exists in the real world as well. It’s not as obvious as a storm brewing in the distance. It’s not as direct as the red hand of a clock ticking ominously.
Oftentimes, it’s in the movement of the masses. It’s in the repetition of something that was said before, done before, in almost the exact order. It is a pattern that only those who have looked through thousands of patterns recognize.
That night at the bar, I saw him disagree about some small detail of a story she was telling. He was exasperated that her memory was not as accurate as his and so insisted on telling the story “right.” It was cute, she laughed it off, but she was mildly annoyed.
They were both storytellers, they loved to be heard. And I sensed a clash of personalities too similar to last.
Reading gives us condensed experiences. We can live a lifetime in just a few days or even a few hours. After a while, we develop an instinctual knowledge of human nature, and how fate is not predictable, but character is.
Transformative change is incredibly difficult to achieve so the likelihood of getting a “surprise” ending would require a deus ex machina that is equivalent to a miracle. These are discouraged in literature because they are not believable and fairly non-existent in real life.
Being right often is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it can help us with choices in our own lives, and gives us the ability to give and receive great advice. It is a curse, because with success comes a yuge amount of hubris.
I’m not kidding.
It is one of the main reasons I keep my thoughts to myself. If I start telling people what they should do all the time and prove again and again that I’m right, then roll my eyes condescendingly to those who don’t believe me, people will despise me.
As they should. They will keep their stance just to “prove” I was wrong. They are cutting off the nose to spite their face, but they are still spiting me a tad too.
Giving advice with condescension can backfire. And those with a proven track record of being right… a lot, find it difficult to “soften their tone” and above all, remain humble.
If knowledge is indeed power, then why do I feel so powerless? Like Cassandra, I fear the voices of wisdom will be drowned out, made useless because we don’t know the perfect formula to communicate our knowledge effectively.
Intelligence is only powerful if it is sandwiched with likeability. Being smart isn’t enough. Being a prophet isn’t enough.
Being right isn’t enough.
All we can do is watch helplessly as beloved Troy falls.