Living with Uncertainty

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The ironic paradox of our lives right now is that we live in the Information Age – with more knowledge and wisdom available to us than ever.  And yet, simultaneously, we are facing more uncertainty than ever.  We are confused and overwhelmed by competing viewpoints and even competing facts.  We know so much more about what we don’t know.

And our minds HATE uncertainty.  We feel safer when we know what to expect.  We feel safer when things are familiar, reliable, and predictable.  We feel safer when we have some say about what’s happening, some reasonable amount of control over our lives.

The current times are anything but certain and predictable.  They are forcing us to reckon with the reality that there is much in life we don’t have control over.

This is true at a global level – from climate change to social injustice unrest and violence to an upcoming national election that is preemptively being put in doubt with accusations of voter fraud, suppression, and general unreliability.

For many of us, it’s also true at a local, more personal level.  We may be struggling with the daily uncertainty of our children’s schooling – when and where and how it’s being carried out in light of the coronavirus pandemic.  We may be struggling with the uncertainty of our financial security – keeping our jobs or finding a new one.  We may be struggling with fears about the uncertain risk of infection to us or our loved ones.

All this on top of ongoing, uniquely personal struggles – physical and mental health conditions that are aggravated by stress and uncertainty.

How Can We Cope with All of This Craziness?

I return to the practice of living out the Serenity Prayer.

God, 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.

In any given situation, there are always some things we can control, and some things we can’t control.  Some parts of the situation we can influence, some parts we can’t.  Pretty much, I believe that’s a fundamental truth.

So, borrowing from Stephen Covey and others, I like to picture two concentric circles, one inside the other.  In the Inner Circle we can picture the things we Can Control.  In the Outer Circle, picture the things we Can’t Control.

Now let’s apply what I half-jokingly call the key to the universe – “What you focus on, grows” – to these Circles of Control.

The more we spend time thinking about, worrying about, complaining to ourselves and others about the parts of our situation that we can’t control, what happens to our sense of power?  What happens to our sense of security and control over our lives?  To quote George Constanza, “Shrinkage.”

The more we focus on the things in the Outer Circle, the larger those things we can’t control become – at least in our own minds.  And we tend to feel proportionately smaller, more helpless, perhaps even victimized.

[GEEK NOTE: As these thoughts and worries about what we can’t know or control grow larger, they literally become embodied within us.  They can affect our bodies at a functional, structural, and even cellular level.  Your nervous system (including your brain) is intimately intertwined with every other system in the human body.  It is intertwined with the immune system, with important implications for inflammatory diseases.  And through the vegus nerve bundle it’s literally intertwined with the viscera – gut, heart, and lungs.  Your mind directly and continuously affects your body, and vice-versa.]

Alternatively, the more we focus on, think about, and talk about the things we can control, the larger the Inner Circle grows.  We become more empowered.  More serene and secure.  And our bodies become more energized in a positive and productive way.

Through intentional, regular practice we can grow our habits of mind more in one direction or the other.  It’s happening one way or another unintentionally, unconsciously anyway.  Why not make it more conscious – tilting in the direction of greater health and well-being? – Especially when we’re struggling with whatever physical, mental, financial, social, etc. difficult circumstances may be at hand.

We aren’t talking about becoming delusional.  We can’t wish or focus away some of the Outer Circle realities of our life circumstances.  We all have to deal with our own specific vulnerabilities and limitations. Yep, always there.

AND still, we have a choice for how to be with those circumstances.  What we focus on, grows. What we practice, grows stronger.

Putting Words into Practice

Putting these ideas to work on a daily basis, we can cultivate the simple practice of noticing – “Which circle am I in right now?”

Whenever I’m feeling stressed-out, overwhelmed, exhausted, I return to this practice.  Whenever I’m feeling anxious and uncertain about what’s happening in my life or what I need to do, I return to this practice.

Pause.  Breathe.  Reflect.  And Respond (not React).

Which circle am I in right now?

Am I spinning out in my mind about all the things out there that I can’t control?  It’s good to acknowledge those things, but not stay stuck in them.  So let me notice that I’m now spiraling down a rabbit hole which is only making me feel more burdened and helpless.

In the moment of noticing, I have a choice:  to continue being swept downstream by these unhelpful worries, or to step out of the stream and find my footing on the banks of more stable ground.

I gently redirect my thoughts back to my inner circle.  Yes, this stuff around me is happening, and there are some things right now that I can’t change.  AND it’s also true that there is something I can do about it, right here, right now.

I can breathe slowly and steadily through my nose and into my belly.  I can recognize that my body is safely here right now.  I can name 3 things I could do that would help me calm down or move forward more productively.  I can choose to take one step forward with a small, positive action plan to do one of those things.  Right now.

I can do this… I will do this… I am doing this…

And that’s how I get myself back on track.  That’s how I move through these crazy times with more peace and productivity.  That’s how I live with uncertainty with a bit more ease, and a little less dis-ease.

One breath.  One conscious thought.  One step at a time.

I hope you will too.