Coming to Terms with Uncertainty
Uncertainty is a terrible thing. As human beings, so much of our happiness is dependent on our sense of security – on knowing that we are safe, knowing that we can choose within clearly defined parameters, and knowing that this harmonious state is guaranteed to continue into the future. Knowing. Our lives revolve around knowledge, or at least a perceived sense of knowledge, of the world around us.
No one likes to not know where their next meal is coming from, whether they will have money in the bank at the end of the month, or whether their loved ones will still be around tomorrow. Many of you will starkly remember the first time you experienced acute uncertainty. For most, the memory begins with the shrill cry of the school bell. It is the end of the day, and children all around are being emancipated into the bliss of a summer afternoon. You run out to the parking lot, expecting one of your parents to be waiting in the car, ready to whisk you home to the comforts of homemade sandwiches, a familiar bedroom and perhaps, for a lucky few I was not amongst, a glimpse of your favourite TV show.
But your parent is nowhere to be seen. You wait a while, scanning your eyes through the assembly of unknown vehicles. You watch as friend after friend disappears in the clasp of a parent’s hand. After about about ten minutes, you give up your search and decide to mill about some unfamiliar peers – trying desperately to hide the disappointment on your face which so blatantly gives you away as an ‘early leaver’. You join a game of handball, soccer or marbles – anything to pass the time and take your mind off the hurt and accusation now racking your mind. How could they be so late? What possibly could be more important than picking you up on time? Did they not have the decency to at least phone a teacher?
Minute after minute passes, and eventually even your loosely acquainted fellows begin to disappear. You look around and suddenly realize that the playground is sparse, save for one or two others who are veteran ‘late leavers’ and have long since learned to be patient. But then one of them goes home. The other is tucked into a book and shows no desire to console you in your time of need. You sit down, slumped shoulders, eyes still searching the vicinity for the old bonnet you know so well.
And then it happens – your one last partner in neglect gets up and leaves too. You are all alone. Panic begins to kick in. You feel angry, hurt and scared. Why have they abandoned you? What are you supposed to do? What if they never come? These thoughts race through your mind and snatch away all rationality and peace. It is important to note that you feel this way not so much because you are left alone – you would have had no problem taking out your homework and busying yourself, had your parents warned you that they would be late. No, you are tortured because you do not know what has happened or why you have been left alone. You are uncertain. You do not know…
I apologize for having dug up this moment-by-moment account of an unpleasant memory most of you would rather forget. But it is important because it is the the clearest, simplest example of how uncertainty brings unnecessary pain and suffering. If you are reading this a couple of years on from that dreadful experience, you are alive and well and clearly did not suffer a stroke from shock or fall prey to a lurking kidnapper. In fact, you probably can’t even remember what you did that day when your parent, or their emissary, eventually did show up to save you from your misery.
As we grow older, we experience uncertainty in more complex ways – so complex that we sometimes don’t even realise what is making us so worried. But the root remains the same – unhappiness caused by not knowing. I've had my fair share of this type of anxiety. While I can't say I've learned to completely overcome it, I do know that coming to terms with uncertainty begins with accepting – no, not just accepting, but actually embracing – it and learning to find your purpose in the midst of it all.