How to Handle Uncertainty

Learning to be in the present.

Posted Aug 30, 2020

 Enhur_/DepositPhotos
We’re not trained to deal with uncertainty
Source: Enhur_/DepositPhotos

Recently, while listening to the radio, I heard interviews by two different journalists, each questioning mental health professionals about issues people are having with the pandemic. Both journalists asked the same question: “What can people do in this time of uncertainty?” The two mental health practitioners responded exactly the same way, saying “We’re not built for uncertainty.”

Something about their quick, identical responses gave me pause to reflect. I wondered, “If we’re not built for uncertainty, what are we built for?”

When we consider uncertainty, especially in these challenging times, it is often accompanied by worry and fear. “Will I get sick?” “How will I pay the bills?” “How long with this pandemic last?” So much uncertainty, so much worry! All of us worry at some time, some for prolonged periods.

In an earlier post, I wrote about worrying: it only produces more worrying. If you keep worrying you get tied up in knots and the more you worry the tighter the knots get, damaging your body, mind and spirit.

Moreover, when you worry you are not in the present—you’re either getting sucked into the quicksand of the past (“Why didn’t I ask for that raise last week?”) or you’re lurching, fearfully, into an underdetermined future (“What’ll happen if I don’t get that raise?”).

I imagine that the interviewees who said “We’re not built for uncertainty,” would say that the COVID virus is causing the uncertainty, which is causing the worry. But the flaw in this premise is that there’s always uncertainty, COVID or no COVID. Does anyone, ever, really know what’s going to happen tomorrow, next month, next year, let alone in the next ten minutes?

So if uncertainty is built into life, what are we, mortal humans, built for?

Here’s my answer: We’re built for being present. We’re built for dealing with challenges of life. We’re built for to stay connected: to ourselves, to each other, to nature.

Take sports: If we’re not built for uncertainty, athletes would never get out on the ball field, or jump in the pool, or ski down the snowy slope. Athletes deal with uncertainty every single moment. They play the game. Like every athlete, each of us is meant to engage, to be in and move with the river of life and all it’s unpredictability and uncertainty. Otherwise we’d all be standing still, stuck on the banks of life, worrying, “Oh dear. What am I going to do?”

To deal with the uncertainties inherent in every challenge, on a moment-by-moment basis (and what is life but a continual series of moment-by-moment challenges?), we need to be taught and trained to deal with challenge. We need tools.

And that’s the problem: our systems of education are not training students to deal with life’s challenges. “Wait a minute,” you might say, “Education is filled with tests!” True, but those “tests” are mostly “What do you recall?” experiences. They test stuff we only have a glancing connection to before we’ve forgotten all of it (what do you remember of what you “learned” in the fourth grade, or the ninth grade, or that course you took in graduate school?). We’re trained to compete, to out-score each other, not to self-realize and cooperate.

For the last two months, I had 13 high school and college interns working with me on two projects. Many of the students were stressed out, adrift, bereft. Life for students today is overflowing with uncertainty. Students are not equipped to stay in the present, face uncertainty, and deal with it productively. They have no tools to face the life challenges are they are being confronted with.

The interviewees I referred to at the beginning of this post should have said, “We’re not trained for uncertainty.” That’s quite a different story.

So what do I mean by “tools”? 

Tune into the series of posts that follow this one as I share the tools for dealing with uncertainty. The tools for being present.