Protherapeia (pro-ther-a-pei’-a): Preparing one’s audience for what one is about to say through conciliating words. If what is to come will be shocking, the figure is called prodiorthosis.


Nobody can unerringly predict the future. You can hope for it and you can dream about it, but you can’t predict it. Weather forecasts can do a pretty good job, but that’s as far as it goes. Many of us live as if we could predict the future, making decisions that lean toward a future that is not present—that is spun out of a narrative inside our head, or a conference with a so-called advisor, or a mentor. Some decisions are more foolish than others. But, all decisions have a dimension of foolishness: the are addressed toward a non-existent entity that can never be known. Yet, coping with life’s challenges—whether here now, or in an imagined future—necessitates wondering, balancing, judging. Our well-worn treks into the future don’t require much prognostication—like going to the grocery store. You make a list, you get in your car and go. All is well until there’s no toilet paper on the shelves. Now, you see the contingencies latent in your predictable trek into the grocery store future.

Neither the past nor the future actually exist. The present turns into the past while you experience it. No matter what happens in the present, if you are intact as you experience it, it becomes your past. The past and the future, two times that don’t exist, and yet, establish our lives and characters in unreflective instances of closure, or better or worse acts of interpretation. Hope and fear haunt our decision making—there is no way out. At the bottom, they shore up everything we do: the polar rationales and fleeting or unshakable inducements that make us what we are.

Between the past and the future, we may be evolving toward an unimaginable future, away from an unsatisfactory past. But, always inside your head, the unresolved beat goes on—from observing the first snowflake of winter, to reflecting on the fate of the squirrel you ran over with your SUV on your way home from work. There is no peace of mind, just more or less vexing pasts and futures. If you can accept that, you’ll avoid the pitfalls of religion, and everything else that is “Too good to be true.”

I developed these “insights” years ago. It started when I opened my last can of sardines. I was hanging from a cliff 200 feet off the ground—stranded by a stuck rope. Luckily, I had stuffed the can of sardines into my pants pocket—I say “luckily” because I hadn’t given it a second thought. I did not have a fork. I was swinging back and forth eating the sardines with my fingers and wiping the oil on my pants. After I finished my sardines, I thought about cutting the rope and falling into oblivion. But, I didn’t.

I had a magnifying glass hanging from my belt that I used to examine rock samples, looking for pieces of silver ore. Suddenly, I smelled smoke—the magnifying glass had focused a ray of sunlight into a burning beam that lit my pants on fire, with the help of the oil from the sardines my pants were starting to blaze. The rope was catching fire too. That was it. Consumed by terror, I closed my eyes and waited for the end, thinking it would hurt and accepting death. Then, I remembered the two bottles of water. The were both full. I pulled them off my waistband and dumped them on my pants and the rope, which looked like it was starting to melt.

One of the nearby search parties saw the smoke and came to my rescue. I had some superficial burns, and I was grateful to be alive. Beyond planning my 200-foot descent, all of what happened was completely unexpected. The surprise was terrifying. But, what can anybody do? It is impossible to thwart the unknowable.

As Jim Morrison wrote: “The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near.” Accepting this, we can ponder it and contemplate it, and we may see the beauty of life’s limited horizon, illuminated by what’s beyond it, but unknowable. And we may reach toward the horizon, and prompted by wonder, we wonder “What’s next?”

Now, what are you going to do next? Go home? Go out to dinner? Be run over by a FedEx truck?

Definition courtesy of “Silva Rhetoricae” (

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