What do you do with uncertainty?
This morning, I walked into a café and started talking with the baristas. Somehow, two minutes of chat took us from “What do you want to drink?” to envisioning dystopian futures. Another recession is coming, Trump will get reelected or stage a coup, hurricanes and fires and floods will get worse, opioids and Nazis are everywhere, maybe there will be a revolution, maybe we’ll go extinct. This is America in 2019.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation.
A week ago, at a café, the same thing happened. Two minutes went from ordering a latte to a 17-year-old at the table next to me talking about how all the seniors in their high school live in fear of school shootings and feel hopeless for the future. At bars and restaurants, with friends and family, from California to Vermont, I keep having conversations about the end of the world, about death and anxiety, about fear, about change, about uncertainty for the future.
My ex-boyfriend wanted to buy a house in the Bay Area. I couldn’t fathom it. A friend tried to talk me into doing a PhD. I can’t wrap my head around it. Long-term commitments? Houses and careers and children and plans? What do these even mean anymore? What good are any plans when the world is falling apart, like… right now?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I think I can speak for enough people when I say, it feels like we’re walking on water instead of land. Life swells beneath us and then drops, it rolls in and out, and everything beneath us keeps shifting. The groundedness we used to feel is evaporating into air. We’re not quite in free-fall, but we’re not exactly stable. America Was Never That Great, It Isn’t Now. There is no return and the future is a clusterfuck.
More and more, the answers are turning into questions, and the question I’m left with is: What do we do with all of this uncertainty?
I feel myself try to cling — holding tight to any thread thrown my way as though it’s as sturdy as rope. From relationships to work to study to cities, I keep seeking to embalm my life. Give me something that lasts, something I can bet on. I need to know the odds. I need answers, I need clarity, I need some ground to stand on so I can start moving again.
In the back of my mind, I know it’s all just a story I tell so I can feel safe. In the back of my mind, I never feel safe. We’re standing on water while the sea levels rise, and it’s getting too deep to anchor anywhere.
For many of us, we anchor ourselves to roles. Our roles in work, in family, in community, in relationships. We play roles that do not always fit us because they are some kind of ground to stand on. Boring Monday morning meetings that make us want to stab our eyes out with a pencil feel safer than free-fall. We stay in places we hate, in cities that grow too expensive or cruel, because staying is safer than starting over. We know where we stand, and no matter how much is thrown at us, at least we’re standing somewhere.
But what happens when the show is over? When the mask falls away and we realize — this was just a story we told so we could feel safe?
For some of us, we anchor ourselves to ourselves. Our truths and our boundaries, our loves and our needs. We move through life based on feeling and joy, we follow our bliss, navigating by the compass etched into our souls no matter the odds. It unfolds, blooming and expanding out like tree branches and we climb to the edges and look out. I know this life — I live this life. At least, I did — until the compass stopped pointing anywhere.
Even ourselves are stories we tell, narratives we construct to feel safe.
There comes a time when you’ve sampled enough sweetness and realize that everywhere you go, the same sun shines on you and every night it sets. Every role you pick up or cast off, you’re still you underneath. Every self you become will change in time. Every boundary is negotiable, every border is permeable, every story has its end. Everything you feel and are will change.
Everything is shifting, always. It is growing and decaying, born and living and dying then dead. Whatever you feel, you will eventually feel differently. Whoever you are, you will eventually be different. We have never been on steady ground. It doesn’t work like that. Nothing is certain.
Sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves to pretend things are certain are strong enough to give us a sense of safety. More and more, they are not. American democracy is a story we tell, and a story that feels more like a fiction each day. The economy is a story we tell. True love is a story we tell. Life purpose is a story we tell. Our lives are stories we tell.
More and more I see that we react to the stories we tell about the world, not to the world itself. The glass is just a glass and there’s water in it — whether you call it half empty or half full does not change what it is.
We have the power to tell stories, but some stories hit us so hard that we can only react to them as though they are the truth of what happened. Some thoughts are so nagging that we can’t not have them, even though they are nothing but thoughts. We have power, and we don’t have power.
We experience, we tell stories about it all, and sometimes the stories tell us. We are experiencers, and there is no certainty in what we will experience.
We are experiencing great uncertainty. What do we do with it?
We trust and we doubt and we trust and we doubt. We hope and we plan and we change. We endure until we can’t anymore. We love until we don’t anymore. We live until we die, and then we die, and then we’re dead.
Death is a certainty. In the mean time, life is uncertain. These are questions and not answers.
How do you deal with that?