With Coronavirus, Uncertainty Is a Certainty

Life is full of unknowns but, what’s the best way to deal with them?

Posted Jun 11, 2020

Mark Neal/Pexels
Source: Mark Neal/Pexels

I like quotes, words of wisdom and witty bon mots. I often use them in the therapy room to make a therapeutic point or highlight an important aspect of the process of change. You can find a saying for pretty much any and all circumstances. And I’m as equally fond of a new-age quote as I am of a pearl of wisdom that comes to us from out of antiquity. And, there’s a rather old saying that goes, “there’s nothing certain but death and taxes.” 

As a maxim, it’s a reflection on how little there is in life that you can be truly sure of. It’s often (and incorrectly) attributed to Benjamin Franklin but, first appeared in either Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil or The Cobbler of Preston by Christopher Bullock. 

It’s very pointedly used to convey the notion that very little in life is certain. Which, when you think about it, makes uncertainty a certainty. So, nothing in life is certain but death, taxes and that.

We deal with uncertainty all the time, sometimes better than others. We have little uncertainties (such as not really knowing what will happen to you during the day) and we have big uncertainties (the threat of redundancy when it happens, for instance). And we have very large, all-encompassing uncertainties such as now, such as Coronavirus. Life under lockdown has become very uncertain indeed. And that uncertainty is set to continue for the foreseeable future, not just as many countries (mine included) continue with their lockdown restrictions, but also as we slowly return to some semblance of normality and learn to navigate a life lived not post but alongside COVID-19.

Learning to tolerate uncertainty then, will not only stand you in good stead but, also, becomes a very valuable life skill going forwards. 

The philosopher Francis Bacon once famously said, “if we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts but if we begin with doubts, and are patient in them, we shall end in certainties.”

As we move forwards, worries, doubts and insecurities are unsettling but normal. They are sadly part and parcel of what is going on the world over at the moment.

Things are not as under our control as we would like them to be. But that’s okay too as very little in this life is or ever was.

Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) is based in part on the teachings of Stoic philosophy and a central observation of the Stoics was that pretty much all human suffering was the result of trying to control the uncontrollable. 

And yet, the only thing that is really, truly under your control, are your thoughts. The life you think you had control over will always throw you curveballs. It just did. You have some influence over what is going on, but not as much as you would like, hence all the worry, all the doubt and all the uncertainty. 

The late new-age guru Adi Da Samraj once said, “relax! Nothing is under control.” And while some see this proclamation as calm and reassuring, others see it as chaos and madness. Adi Da Samraj (born Franklin Albert Jones) meanwhile, was quite the character. Not only did he proclaim himself a god (before his death in 2008) he also said that only by worshipping him could you gain enlightenment, which is a little bit worrying when you think about it, and would definitely result in you surrendering far too much control indeed if you followed him.

And whilst some people did indeed succumb to his cultish ways, some said “no thanks” in the first place, whilst others later came to their senses and ran away.

Because, you see, you do have some influence over some of the things in your life. If you stop worrying about the things in life you have no control over whatsoever, embrace the uncertainty, and focus your attention on those things you can exert some influence over, how much happier and in control would you feel? How much more energy would you have when you focus your attention only on those things that concern you?

But, how do you tell the difference? Well, for starters, you could draw a list. In column one you could list all the things ‘you have no control over whatsoever’ and, in column two, you could put ‘all the things you have some control over.’

The hard part comes in choosing where to put your focus. The difficulty lies in deliberately not worrying about the things in life you have no control over, an ethos that is eloquently encapsulated within The Serenity Prayer.

Written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, possibly in the early 1930s, and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs the prayer says, “God (or life, or the universe, if you’re not religious) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

As the lockdown life continues, and uncertainty remains ever-certain, we could all do with just letting go of the things we have no control over, focussing our energy only on those things we have some control over but, also, and more importantly, developing the wisdom to know the difference between the two. But, like anything in life, that wisdom is a skill you can develop with practice.

I am sure you would feel better if you did.