Living With Uncertainty
I’m sure you would agree that we are living in very uncertain times.
Many people are feeling stressed or confused about the prevalent uncertainties in our lives. Some are unhappy about the present, or dreading a dangerous or even perilous future.
Recent polls and health research data have shown that people are experiencing increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, and more anxiety and depression. In addition to everyday worries and woes, they are concerned that this era is particularly fraught with uncertainties:
* The pandemic has affected us all to varying degrees, and has significantly constrained or changed our lives.
* We have fears that vaccine immunity may be limited, or that the infectious Delta strain may be a forerunner of other variants.
* There are zealous regressive voices espousing beliefs in weird and dangerous conspiracy theories, and mistrust of science, humanism and democratic institutions.
* Many populists harbor antagonisms and hatreds towards strangers, different races and ethnicities.
* Authoritarian regimes now rule in many countries and extremist sects thrive elsewhere, including in the United States.
* Stark inequities exist throughout the world, with the lights of opulence and the darkness of privation existing side by side, provoking envy and enmity.
* Violent conflicts have flared up in many countries, again including the United States.
* Global Warming’s effects are now ubiquitous, melting ice shelves, rising water and sea levels, extreme heat, aridity and raging wildfires, massive storms, flooding and mudslides.
* Thousands of hungry emigres are on the move all over the world, seeking safe havens, risking (often losing) their lives in the hopes of finding viable living conditions.
“This is the worst era ever!” is a frequently heard sentiment, but many historians and social scientists beg to differ: They point to past eras which also saw immense suffering, upheavals and bloodshed (wars, plagues, famines) followed by recoveries, and to the remarkable progress humans have made in the sciences, medicine, the arts and other pursuits.
We humans feel and do best when we sense security and predictability in our lives, and conversely, privation and conflict instill uncertainty in us. When uncertainties about our security and future preoccupy us, we feel more vulnerable, and we ask ourselves existential questions, like “Where are we heading?” “Will I (my family) be safe? “What the ___ is going on?!”
For some answers to these psychological and social issues, we strangely turn to the “hard sciences” of physics and mathematics.
About a century ago, the physicist Werner Heisenberg postulated the “Uncertainty Principle,” which indicated that in quantum physics, there are inherent limitations in accurately measuring objects, and there are inevitable limits to precise measurements of physical properties like mass, momentum and position.
Similarly, in mathematics, “Chaos Theory” indicates unpredictable or random behaviors in systems which are supposedly controlled by predetermined laws. This involves “calculating the incalculable, expecting the unexpected, and predicting the unpredictable.”
These very same principles from the hard sciences can be applied to the worlds of social sciences and our everyday lives. Just as in physics and mathematics, there are virtually no personal or social experiences which can be predicted with perfect accuracy.
We might even take some perverse comfort in the physical world’s uncertainties since “Living with Uncertainty” is also an integral part of human existence. We humans may be on a “fool’s mission” if we desire what is impossible to attain, that is, absolute certainty.
We abhor the precariousness of the unpredictable. We want to feel that we are always safe and that our futures are foreseeable. We crave the reassurance of infallibility. We don’t want to hear the words, “It depends…” from experts and scientists. We want precise and correct forecasts and clear answers to complex questions.
If “living with uncertainty” is indeed a ‘fact of life’, what are we to do?
We can pursue two polar opposite futile approaches: That is, we can be alarmists like ‘Chicken Little’ and proclaim that “the sky is falling,” running hysterically about, in a perpetual state of panic. Or, like the proverbial ostrich, we can bury our heads in the sand, pretending that “what we can’t see, can’t hurt us.”
Another blind approach used by some overly confident people is the hubris of invincibility, as in, “There is nothing to fear!”
While none of these extremes represents comprehensive answers, they do contain some elements of successful strategies.
We humans do better when we can maximize our familiar routine activities and schedules.
We are a social species and we thrive on our comforting contacts with family and friends.
We defend ourselves against external turmoil by learning to compartmentalize, not like the above ostrich, but by concentrating on the present, the predictable, the possible and the pleasurable.
We enhance ourselves when we do the best we can for our bodies, by pursuing exercise, healthy eating and drinking, adequate rest and sleep.
We need to provide enrichment for our minds and souls by continuing to learn (at any ages), appreciating beauty, ‘smelling the flowers,’ listening to music or concerts, watching films and plays, and feeling gratitude for the material, experiential and spiritual parts of our lives.
We overcome challenges by gathering factual information from reliable journalism and science, rather than from the scare tactics of panic-inducing braying of ignorant asses.
I am not advocating an Alfred E. Neuman (of Mad Magazine fame) attitude, a “What me worry?!” denial of reality. Rather, I urge rationing our strengths, being attentive to our real problems, and thinking and discussing with others about strategies for dealing with social and political problems when they arise.
We also improve our own mental health and well-being when we use our empathy and motivation to help others in difficult straits. Many people feel personally enhanced when they get involved in volunteer activities, through civic or religious or other auspices.
Others feel their state of being is dramatically improved when they become activists themselves, by joining social or political movements to help mitigate or eradicate the very problems which upset them.
These above strategies are obviously not “cure-alls.” That is, they will obviously not make our considerable personal and worldly challenges just vanish. They may sound simplistic to you, but I assure you, they are tried-and-true approaches to the uncertainties of our times.
We shall indeed overcome…