Thoughts / uncertainty

Getting comfortable with uncertainty

We have returned. Again. After an extended break.

I didn’t fall off the Internet. As it turns out I just had a pretty amazing year. 2018 ended up being one of the best yet, but making space for all the new things meant that we got a bit slack on the Hope Street Cards front. But we’re back.

As with all beginnings, it can be natural for us to reflect on what has been and what will be. In reflecting on my 2018, I think one of the reasons I had such a stellar year was because somehow I became okay with uncertainty.

Rationally, we all know that life is mysterious. Unpredictable. Uncertain. We have very little idea what is going to happen or what surprise might be in store for us. Other than death – and maybe taxes – there’s very little else we know. But still, we run ourselves ragged trying to obtain some form of certainty about the future.

Well at least I did. And I still do sometimes. But it’s possible that by coming to accept another certainty in life – that there is no certainty – I lived much more fully in 2018.

As a rule us humans prefer certainty to uncertainty. Studies have shown that people would rather definitely get an electric shock now than maybe be shocked later. And we show greater nervous-system activation when waiting for an unpredictable shock (or other unpleasant stimulus) than an expected one. Where people differ is in the degree to which uncertainty bothers them.

For those of us who are prone to experiencing anxiety we will find it difficult to sit with uncertainty. When we struggle to sit with the uncertainty of what might happen in the future, we often are not present in the moment. Instead our minds will be in the past or the future. Worrying. Planning. Obsessing. Predicting. Controlling.

If we are not able to sit with the uncertainty of what will happen in the future it means that we are usually not present in the moment, not connected to that solid sense of inner being. Rather we are in the past or the future, worrying about a perceived emotional or physical threat to ourselves.

In order to feel more secure, we might try to control life as much as we can, trying to fit the future to our expectations.

We might – quite naturally – fall prey to powerful fantasies about what might bring us calm and certainty. When we go on holiday there will be peace. We just need to hold on for a little while longer. Or once we get our house as we’d like it: with everything in its place, no more clutter, new appliances and more storage. Then we’ll feel better. Or maybe it will come when we get a better job, work for a bigger organisation, get paid more. Or (and this one we might keep a little more to ourselves), there might be calm, certainty and wellbeing when we find just the right person to fit into our life. Someone who properly understands us; is kind playful and sympathetic; is thoughtful and compassionate; and whose eyes we could stare into for days. Maybe then.

Yet despite the promises of these fantasies, none of them work. Because even when we are on holiday, or enjoying our well-ordered house, working in the job of a lifetime and staring into a loved one’s eyes, there will still be uncertainty about what happens next. Because of how clever our minds are, we will always be able to imagine so much more than what we already have or something that might be so much worse than what we already have.

One of the downsides of the mostly awesome phenomenon of human consciousness is the ability to worry about the future. We know it exists, but we don’t know what will happen to it. Charles Darwin observed that due to their inability to conceptualise the future, animals just don’t get overwhelmed with anxiety life we do. Sure they experience the fight or flight response to enable their survival, but the trigger is plain and simple fear in that moment. The fear is largely proportionate to the tangible threat involved. Human anxiety, on the other hand, stems from an existential awareness of what the fear means – that the future is unknown. And no holiday, new house or job, or other person can take this away.

So, how did I come to terms with all this over the past year? I pursued a lot of things that I had fantasised about doing in the past, but I didn’t pursue them with the underlying goal of creating calm and certainty. Instead I submitted to straight-out surrender and acceptance. A surrender to the present moment as it is. And an acceptance that struggling to sit with uncertainty is a beautiful sign that I am alive and the future will come.

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