How To Deal With Uncertainty In Life
Our lives are fundamentally uncertain. This blog discusses a framework for dealing with uncertainty in life.
Our lives are fundamentally uncertain. This blog discusses a framework for dealing with uncertainty in life.
Our lives are fundamentally uncertain in nature. We do not know what the next moment holds for us. The body we inhabit is a very complex system of billions of individual cells. Modern science doesn’t (and possibly can never) understand the nature of our reality. Who are we as beings? What is the story of our origin? Who created us? These are some of the greatest mysteries that have plagued human life for generations and will do so for centuries in the future.
Let us imagine what the world looked like before the March of 2020. The world seemed to be moving along with its everyday characteristic monotony. Some of us were going to school, others to work, some had to tend to their loved ones, some were starting new married lives, and many other things. We were peaceful in the sense that we knew what the joys and sorrows of our lives were, and we could predict the future.
A force of nature (the COVID-19) virus had other intentions. It infected a small group of people in the city of Wuhan in China and took the world over. All our hopes, aspirations, and plans were thrown out the window. Our only focus was for the next couple of years — “Survival.” Could we have predicted what was about to come? Definitely Not. Could we have prepared ourselves better for the incoming predicament? Indeed, we could have done a much better job.
I refer to the pandemic in this post to bring attention to the observation that human reality is uncertain. If we think about it, there is no certainty about the next breath that you take. There will most certainly come a time when you take the last breath, and this beautiful gift of God (i.e., life) will come to an end. Many of us find it hard to come to terms with this reality. I often meditate on how we can train our minds to come to acceptance and live with this certainty a bit more peacefully.
My meditations lead me to the question — “What would The Buddha Mind do to deal with uncertainty in human life?” It is this fundamental question that I will try to answer in the next part of the blog. Life presents us with the following four options:
Let us walk through each of these to analyze these options.
They say “ignorance is bliss,” and rightfully so. An ignorant person does not understand the complexities of the situation he (or she) is in and therefore does not feel the pain caused by the situation. Let us take an example. Imagine a person who lives on a remote island and remains off the grid. By being completely disconnected from the world, he can isolate himself from the vagaries of human society — possibly COVID as well. This helps him avoid COVID and live a more peaceful life. The argument for ignorance breaks at boundaries of self-consciousness. A conscious person has to live within the bounds of some understanding. The consciousness may be physical or emotional pain. He would still have to contend with his death or the possibility of him running out of food. Nature would teach him that. To be correct, our evolutionary memory already encodes the fear of physical and emotional harm. The more experience that the island bearer goes through in his life, the more he gets “normalized” into the existence of his being — the more uncertainty starts to rule his mind. Ignorance, therefore, seems to have its limitations.
I believe that a significant fraction of humans lives in denial. By not being aware of our reality, we tend to exhibit a state of being where we will live eternally. This is the same psychology that leads people to not take care of their mental, physical, emotional, and financial state. We live in denial — the denial of poverty, the denial of obesity (and its associated health implications), and the denial of mental breakdown. Reality hits hard. We realize the consequences only when we run out of our savings, get fired from our jobs, or lose our health insurance. It gets too late, and we run into troubled waters by then. It gets hard to recover from such a situation because the recovery course is too complicated and requires a lot of time, energy, or capital that we do not yet have. Unfortunately, living in denial is a recipe for disaster and, surprisingly, taken by millions of individuals in their day-to-day lives.
Fear is a universal consequence of our existence. If we delve deeper into fear, we come to the understanding that fear emanates from our evolutionary instincts. The “Selfish Gene” (as coined by Richard Dawkins) puts into perspective that the most important goal of our existence is to ensure that the genetic material survives. Therefore, many of our natural instincts are optimized for survival. We live in communities to lean on others when we need help from others. Similarly, we save food so as not to go hungry when the conditions are bad. Fear is paramount to our survival and invaluable to the cause of human civilization. Does fear help deal with uncertainty? I believe to a certain extent. It does help me become better prepared for eventualities. Let us go back to our example of Covid-19. The countries that had seen COVID-like viruses in the past (such as China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea) had developed enough muscle memory to deal with such situations. One could say they took these actions in the “fear” of such a pandemic striking their societies again. This saved the lives of tens of millions of people and therefore seemed to be an excellent way to react to uncertainty.
However, fear has its disadvantages too. Fear breeds a lack of trust in society. It brings divisions and fractures the social fabric of our existence. A person who lives in fear doesn’t take risks, is not optimistic, and lives a not optimal life. Had we lived in perpetual fear, humans would not have ever dared to go to Moon, invent cars and build nuclear energy. Yes, each of these endeavors led to colossal losses. However, we are still better at fearing less than living in fear. Civilizations that have lived in fear were never able to keep pace with the competitive nature of development and thus lost the battle with the uncertainty that is not deeply ingrained in the law of nature.
I use the word “embrace” to mean “be one with.” Imagine living a life where your being is “one with uncertainty” in a very fundamental way. In my head, this would mean the following:
Accepting that we do not yet understand what may come in the future can be troublesome to start with. Does it mean that we accept the inevitable and do not worry about anything? Does it mean we abandon all fear and do what may please us? Does it mean doing nothing at all? I believe that by accepting reality, one may begin to act in accordance with the true nature of reality. It doesn’t mean that we do not make efforts to build a better future. It doesn’t mean that we live in perpetual. On the contrary, acceptance should be liberating. It should free you from worries about the future and help you live deeply in the present.
Let us go back to our example of someone suffering through a pandemic and decides to accept the uncertainty that comes with it. He understands that his and his loved ones’ life can go away any day if they are not careful. He acknowledges that there are limitations of technology and the social structures we live in. There is only so much that we understand about the virus and that fighting it is somewhat hard. He also understands that everyone else is suffering through pain and lives every moment with a bit more empathy towards others. There are millions of families who have been pushed back into poverty. Millions have lost their loved ones, lost their jobs, and many have lost the businesses they had built over decades. This is a moment of great suffering, and he must remain aware of that. He still goes out, works within the new norms of the society, and finds gratitude every day that he can survive. He goes out of his way and helps those in need of money, food, or medicines keeping in mind his personal needs.
One can achieve this state of being only when at peace with oneself. After a person acknowledges the reality, he can take affirmative action to do the best possible course of action to overcome it.
In the following subsection, I share a four rule framework that helps me deal with the uncertainty of life in a better way.
Dealing with uncertainty is challenging but not impossible. In this subsection, I share my “Rule Of Four” that can help others deal with the many uncertainties in their lives and lead a more peaceful life.
The first step toward Embracing Reality is understanding it. Unless one understands the true nature of reality, one will find it hard to live with it. Let us go back to our example of the pandemic. Understanding the devastating nature of the pandemic is essential. One needs to be aware of the loss of human life, financial stress, the resulting poverty of the millions, and health issues that millions of humans will have to live through. This can only be achieved when we are open-minded and ready to listen to every opinion. We often tend to get into loops of despair and blame others (the society) for the losses that we have to incur. Sometimes it is true. Quite often, it is not true as well. Generally, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Human life is complex. We result from billions of years of evolution right from the big bang. Our societies have evolved with us. We started as cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers. After that, we discovered fire. We developed farming and organized ourselves into small communities near rivers. We then discovered metals and advanced tools. This led us to gradually towards the renaissance, inventing the scientific method, and building technology today. We have had innumerable wars, genocides, pandemics, and natural and technological disasters. We have lived through the many ups and downs of this beautiful civilization to come to this day. There is no doubt that we ended up being so complex beings.
The human condition is limited. We understand very little of nature. As a thought experiment, think of any object that is around you. Now ask the question: Do we understand that object in its entirety? The answer is No. We do not even understand a single atom in its entirety. The world we live in is a mystery. This mystery can be both confining as well as liberating. We can believe that we may never understand anything absolutely or feel free from the burden of being the master of the world.
Our consciousness forces us to believe that we are the center of the universe. It is true that right from our first human experience, it is “I” around which our world revolves. We see the world through our own eyes. We never get to see it from others’ perspectives. Sometimes, this leads us to believe in the importance of ourselves in the world. Breaking the default mode of experiencing the world and acknowledging nature can lead us to a sense of grounding.
The third step is adapting your life to the situation. Once you acknowledge the uncertainty of the situation, it is essential to change accordingly. The human-animal is adaptive. We can live in extremely hot or cold weather; survive underwater, and dive from the sky. This is the secret to our success.
However, what does “adaption” look like in the face of uncertainty? Let us think through what it would look like in the middle of a pandemic. An adaptive individual will understand the importance of social distancing, wearing masks, not visiting crowded places, and following public health guidelines. While many of these may seem like restrictions from our daily routine, these changes are necessary for the survival of ourselves, our family, and society.
As we live our lives in our default modes, we tend to underestimate the compounding impact of these small changes. The virus started by infecting one person and has reached billions of people worldwide. Being adaptive is a sign of open-mindedness, empathy, care for society, and a scientific outlook.
The last step is to react mindfully. I believe every one of us is placed in a situation where we can help one person in any given situation. Even when you are on your deathbed, you can advise your young ones to help them lead a better life. However, it is essential to be mindful of the way you react. An adverse reaction causes more harm to the world than it brings positivity. Being mindful requires one to be understanding, acknowledging, and adaptive. Only then can you truly understand what the world around you needs and how you can bring a positive change?
In the case of the pandemic, it may be helping someone financially, providing food to the needy, connecting someone with a doctor, or even listening to someone else’s grievance.