We agree we should live in the present, but what if this present were the world's last night?

It might make a difference. And the prediction of a severe earthquake come Monday in the region between St. Louis and Memphis has caused schools to be closed and has made many folk more nervous than usual.

A scientist has proclaimed a 50-50 chance of an earthquake that day, based on the position of sun and moon and gravitational pull and probably much else. What a pity we did not think ahead and scrounge up money to bet 50-50 that no earthquake will occur.

What's a 50-50 chance, anyway? Often it means nothing more than that either something will happen or it won't. It should go without saying that either everything will happen or it won't, whether the chance is 50-50 or 1 in 3 million.

I say the odds against an earthquake on Monday are overwhelmingly good. Never mind the moon and the tides; predictions of disasters in general and earthquakes in particular are notoriously wrong.

A friend from the region reports her family has laid in some bottled water out in the garage and let it go at that. But I've heard of a case in which anxiety is such that the person has gone into a blue funk and withdrawn from the world, avoiding talk with old friends.

Something of this anxiety has often been felt in past predictions that the world would end in the year 1000 or 1500 or 1984. The lunatic fringe, as they are somewhat rudely labeled, are forever expecting to fall through a crack to China or else be swept up into the air at a trumpet blast.

A guilty conscience is an excellent soil for terror to grow in, and so are unresolved childhood fears and so is, of course, profound ignorance.

I'm not sure people should be deprived of their panic and fear if they don't want to be.

Hamlet had the right idea (if not the right solution) when he asked whether it was better to suffer a whole set of woes or to take action.

In earthquake country I like to think the great majority have taken action, at whatever level comforts them. In my friend's case, a few jugs of water in the garage is action enough, but for others more would be necessary. Perhaps they should reinforce the foundations of the house, or buy a heavy table of oak or move to Canada. Nothing ever happens there.

Or if action is unthinkable (and for some people it is impossible) then they should accept the fact that they intend to do precisely nothing (which in some cases is the best policy). They should say to themselves, look, I'm not going to do a damned thing and therefore whatever happens will happen. They can reflect that hardly anybody was killed or even hurt in the recent San Francisco earthquake. If they are old they can reflect that they're going to die sooner or later, sooner actually, and death by earthquake is probably no worse than many a death in a hospital.

The important thing is either to act or to be perfectly clear in the mind that not acting is the best course and then to live with it. No point eating gruel, moping about and being disagreeable at a dinner.

For almost 200 years the people of St. Louis and Memphis have known of the great New Madrid earthquake in which the Mississippi flowed toward Chicago instead of New Orleans, and picked up her bed and moved miles to the west. They have known earthquakes are likely in the future, as there have been many tremors in this century sufficient to be felt.

What happens when there is no earthquake Monday? Well, there will probably be one someday. There was a famous preacher down there whose sermon, "Payday Someday," was such a success that he repeated it from time to time. I went to hear it once.

Anybody who has ever dealt with humans must know we are the certainty-seeking animal, and as there is no certainty in life it makes us anxious. That is why we have tax deadlines. You pay on April 15. Otherwise, people will fidget all year long that sooner or later the government is expecting a handout. It is far better for the details of the handout to be proclaimed in advance and a date set for handing it over.

The same is true of planting tulip bulbs. They should go in the ground once the earth is cool and somewhat less dry than in summer, but before the earth freezes hard. There are three good months for this operation, but it makes people nervous to think of that. The popular teacher in these matters will say, therefore, that tulips are planted on Nov. 11. Period.

That may make some people nervous if they plant them Nov. 14 or Dec. 4. But without an authoritative pronouncement many people will race about like mice in a newly baffled maze and never plant them at all.

Same with schools. It is important for kids to learn trigonometry, though the point escapes me for the moment, and certainly history and language. They need to be exposed to roaring arguments about which history and which kind of language, so they can go off half-cocked while young, in time to recover. They need to become socialized more or less, and school is our way of accomplishing such important aims.

But of course some of the best-socialized and most learned people never went to school as we have done (Shakespeare and Milton for starters) but experience shows the best results in education generally come from appointing specific times and places for learning. People like it and perhaps require it, just as they require specific times for taxes and tulips.

It would be cruel to mock the anxiety of those in earthquake country and I do not. At the same time, people really do have some responsibility for dealing with their fears without causing traffic jams or frightening the horses.