Three guiding principles for dealing with the uncertainty that is part of life
Trying to reduce uncertainty to make ourselves feel better is futile. But there are ways around it
People walk along Sandymount strand in Dublin practising social distancing on March 20th. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo
When my colleague Richard Plenty and I were writing our book, Uncertainty Rules? Making Uncertainty Work for You, in 2018-2019 we never dreamt that it would be launched into a world facing the biggest global health crisis of our lifetime. And not just a health crisis: an economic nightmare; a social upheaval; a psychological trauma.
We were living in a world of uncertainty, yes, but not of this order. Now, with Covid-19, uncertainty pervades all our lives in a way that it has never done before. It is everywhere, whether we like it or not.
It is on the streets on our daily walks as we try to keep our distance from thoughtless passers-by; it is in the numbers we chase down each day in the latest reported cases and deaths; it is in wondering whether we will be the next victim; it is in worrying, in our darkest moments – and on our own – about whether there will be enough ventilators if we have the misfortune to need one; it is in whether there will be any soap left on the shelf when it is our turn to enter the supermarket. It is in our ever-asked question: when will this ever end?
This is exactly the kind of global phenomenon we sought to address in compiling our “antidote to certitude”. We take the view that uncertainty is inevitable. The real challenge is not just how we cope with it but how we deal with it head on and make the most of the opportunities that it brings.
We have developed a positive, proactive strategy for change, in the belief that trying to reduce uncertainty to make ourselves feel better is a futile undertaking.
A useful way of thinking about uncertainty is to use the metaphor of navigating our way through a mountain range where conditions are unpredictable and changing, as opposed to travelling across flat, unchanging terrain where everything is more predictable.
Our “rules” for coping with uncertainty are not rigid instructions for how people should live their lives, but rather a set of principles that help people find their own path for dealing with the challenges and opportunities that uncertainty brings.
They involve making the time to stop and reflect; to think strategically about purpose, options and choices; to explore, experiment and try things out; and to act decisively when the time seems right.
1. Taking responsibility
A first principle is one of taking personal responsibility for our actions and their impact on others, holding ourselves accountable and not blaming other people for the situation in which we find ourselves. This pandemic gives us many opportunities to take responsibility for ourselves and contribute to our communities.
On the whole, people have responded positively to the challenge. Around the world, people have largely obeyed the rules on staying at home and keeping social distance. There has been a swell of community support, and an upsurge in volunteering and collaborative working.
When this pandemic passes, will we retain this sense of personal responsibility? Will we still contribute so selflessly to others? Will we retain the capacity and the motivation to this for ourselves? Will it become an automatic response, or will it gradually dissipate and more social control become the norm?
2. A sense of purpose
A second principle is the importance of having both strong core values and a clear sense of purpose. In times of uncertainty, we do not have the luxury of having all the facts to hand when making decisions and choices.
With scant information, we need to know both what we stand for and where we are headed. It is a time when it helps to be clear on questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What do I want to achieve?” These fundamental questions have become relevant to society as a whole, as decisions are taken on how best to tackle the pandemic.
Petty squabbles seem absurd when faced with this existential threat. We have just seen the cancelling of the historical billions of the UK’s National Health Service debt so that it can look to the future without being crippled by the past.
How will countries value their health services when this pandemic has passed? How will essential services be rewarded in the future? How will people be treated at work? Will this pandemic help build trust? Or will we become more suspicious? How we answer these questions will have profound effects for generations.
3. Knowing the uncontrollables
A third principle we emphasise is the importance of accepting that there are many things outside of our control. We cannot control the uncontrollable. What we can control though are our responses.
We do not have to react blindly, nor do we have to sit and do nothing. We can seek out facts, we can build scenarios of how to respond, we can weigh up our choices and their consequences. We can learn to manage our anxiety and our emotions so that we look for sensible and rational courses of action rather than being seduced by quick fixes or others who claim to have the “right” answers.
If we don’t learn to do this, we run the risk of creating societies that could return us to the Dark Ages.
Dealing with uncertainty and risk is a major human challenge right now. We need to gather our skills of logic, intuition, resilience, self and other awareness, our ability to think critically and the courage to try things out, to help make it work for us. We need to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences, collaboratively work with others, respect differences of view and the contribution that each of us can make. And more of us need to be able to do this.
Our energy needs to be focused, not on predicting the outcomes of the unpredictable, but on shaping the world we want to create for the future.
Uncertainty Rules? Making Uncertainty Work for You by Richard Plenty and Terri Morrissey is part of the Cork University Press/Atrium “MindYourSelf” series, edited by Dr Marie Murray. The book is available online at https://b2l.bz/Rhjcc7. A hard copy will be available when bookshops reopen.