Life is full of uncertainty. Living is an art and like other forms of art we need to study it. We need to practice it in an attempt to master it. Not that it’s possible to completely master the art of living but it’s still worth pursuing this as a lifelong aspiration. It’s also worth learning from the mistakes and successes of others. It’s worth experimenting and its worth reflecting back on successes and failures. When setting out on this journey one of the first hurdles you’ll come across is thinking about the future. This in itself sometimes generates feelings of anxiety.
Sometimes this overwhelming sense of uncertainty gets too much. But once you realize that the future is not something you can control, then you become comfortable with trying, failing, learning, then trying again. In this post I’ll explore how Stoic ideas have helped with feelings of uncertainty. These may be useful to you, in your life?
Don’t Worry About Uncertainty: Just Start
Be truthful with yourself and start this journey of mastering uncertainty with a beginners mind. Remove any opinions you have on what makes up success or failure as uncertainty isn’t something that you have to conquer or beat. Its something that you have to use to your advantage. One you acknowledge that you don’t need certainty and that life is all about uncertainty then a different reality opens up. For example, if you put off an important activity it may be because you’re uncertain that you’ll achieve a successful outcome. If you feel pangs of envy then it could be because you are uncertain of if you’re getting the most out of life. Anxiety about the future could be because you’re uncertain about it.
One thing is certain and that is the future is uncertain. Not accepting this stops us from making positive changes in our lives. It stops us from doing great things. It stops us from letting go of those people or situations which are holding us back or limiting our potential. And this is only a tiny sample of how fear of what the future may hold affects our lives. Where does this feeling, this anxiety come from? If we don’t know what the future is like, then why be afraid of it. Chances are it won’t be much different to the present. Why is not knowing what will happen tomorrow, or the next day so worrying? I believe that it’s the chance that you could experience pain, loss and suffering. It’s the inability of saying that these things will definitely not happen to us. The uncertainty itself isn’t the problem. Its trying to resist the change and not wanting things to be different. This imagined suffering isn’t the same as actual pain. It’s the suffering which you mind creates around the change itself, and around the loss of the current reality.
We must become more comfortable with probability and uncertainty – Nate Silver
Below are a few ideas which I’ve found to be useful when dealing with uncertainty. Bear in mind that these are recommendations. Take these with a pinch of salt, as I haven’t yet figured all this out myself.
- Uncertainty as a positive force. You can choose to see uncertainty as a positive force. If you have to deal with new challenges, with new things, things which are different to what you’re used to then you learn, grow and develop. All associated fears dissipate. If you can become comfortable with change, it’s nothing to be afraid of. We can then embrace it, find joy in it. Trying something new can be a source of worry. What happens if we make a mistake? What happens if we get it wrong? Or if we fail all together? We build our own personal universes in which we are comfortable. By developing routines and habits in these universes then they become a safe place. If we step outside of our personal universes then we are choosing the leave predictable and familiar places. We are choosing to become exposed and vulnerable. We could fail and we may make a mistake. We may not be good enough. These thoughts, and more, trigger a fear which is scary and uncomfortable. But if we choose to pick a something that is small and easy then it become less of a worry. There isn’t much of a chance that we’ll fail. And if we do it’s a tiny thing anyway so there isn’t a risk of getting hurt. And the more small, non-threatening steps we take then the more confidence we build. Even if you do fail then try not to see it as a negative. Take a detached view from the perceived failure and ask what you can learn from it. Use it as a way to develop and get ever better.
- Realize you’re not alone. Most people feel uncertainty and struggle with it. In general nobody likes to feel uncertain but some have become more comfortable with it then others. People who proclaim that uncertainty doesn’t bother them at all aren’t being honest with themselves, or with you. Most of us like to live well within our respective comfort zones. Or maybe we like to distract ourselves with alcohol, shopping, or other unhelpful pursuits.
- View uncertainty as an opportunity. Moving towards an uncertain future means that you’ll have to leave your comfort zone. This brings with opportunity with it. You can learn and explore new ideas, places and people. Because you’ll be leaving behind certainty its sometimes useful to ask, what’s the worst that can happen? By developing this “worst-case scenario” then you can set the uncertainty into context. Life is full of amazing things, but you have to try to be open to seeing them. Once you do then its easy to be grateful, instead of looking for things to become angry and frustrated about. Instead of wanting to complain, look at situations and events from the perspective of others. Then you’ll begin to foster a sense of compassion. Not only for them, but also for yourself too.
- Stay in the present moment. This sounds easier than it actually is as your mind has a tendency to wander. You may not notice the mind wandering. But it will, and it happens often. But let go of judgements and expectations as they may prevent you from appreciating what you have. Let go of wanting to never be wrong, or make a mistake. Or of feeling a sense of discomfort due to an uncertain tomorrow. Or of wanting others to be or act differently. When you feel these emotions, acknowledge them and then let them go. We try to clinging on to this comfortable idea of how things should be. But these will naturally change and you can either accept the challenge of change, or feel discomfort because of that change. Its your choice. So try to experience joy in uncertainty. When something happens which changes your routines and habits avoid the temptation of label this as bad. Why not re-frame this as an opportunity? By not knowing what the next steps are then it opens up possibilities for growth. It opens up an opportunity for trying a new path, a new method, a new idea. Don’t fall into your comfort zone by sticking to what you know. Try a small experiment, take a chance. By moving outside of what you’re comfortable with then you’ll develop new skills. You’ll gain new experiences, meet new people, and learn to embrace these times, rather than avoiding them.
- Stay in control. Trying to become aware of feelings of uncertainty brings an awareness. By labeling the feeling as, “uncertain”, then you can begin to pinpoint the cause of the feeling. And once you know the cause then you can work on trying to address it. By focusing on what is in your control you can acknowledge that, in fact, you can control very little. This brings a realistic understanding on what you can do. And when events and situations change then your mindset will be one which is less about the fear that this change brings and more about your efforts to work on the situation. Worry about the actual outcome of the situation itself will be less important.
- Foster gratitude and compassion. Negative visualization, or as the Romans called it, premeditatio malorum, helps you want the things you already have. It does they by asking us to think about life without the things you already have. Foe example, your family, loved ones, your health, your home. In the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy the author describes the technique as follows:
[The Stoics] recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus. It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.He then shows how Stoics would approach the problem:“The stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value— that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique— let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus . 5 It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.
Irvine addresses possible objections as follows:
This sounds like no fun at all. But more to the point, it seems unlikely that a Stoic will gain tranquility as a result of entertaining such thoughts. To the contrary, he is likely to end up glum and anxiety ridden. In response to this objection, let me point out that it is a mistake to think Stoics will spend all their time contemplating potential catastrophes. It is instead something they will do periodically: A few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him. Furthermore, there is a difference between contemplating something bad happening and worrying about it. Contemplation is an intellectual exercise, and it is possible for us to conduct such exercises without it’s affecting our emotions. It is possible, for example, for a meteorologist to spend her days contemplating tornadoes without subsequently living in dread of being killed by one. In similar fashion, it is possible for a Stoic to contemplate bad things that can happen without becoming anxiety-ridden as a result.
We all want to have a certain life purpose. We all want to feel we’re on the right path. We all want to perfect our habits, our routines, our productivity. We all want to feel more certain about what we’re doing. The comfort of certainty and perfection versus the fear of uncertainty and being sub-optimal. This is the struggle. I’ve learned that when you’re in the unknown, you don’t know what might come … and so you have to flow with this change. This flexibility is one of the most important tools you can develop. When the unknown future throws something unexpected your way, you deal with it without fear, without anguish, without anger. You respond instead of reacting, with balance and calmness, and the joy of knowing that all will be fine.
How do you deal with uncertainty and the feelings it brings? Please leave a comment below: