These questions which we lust to ask about the future are a confession of sin. God has no answer for them. No answer in words can reply to a question of things. It is not in an arbitrary "decree of God," but in the nature of man, that a veil shuts down on the facts of to-morrow; for the soul will not have us read any other cipher than that of cause and effect.
By this veil, which curtains events, it instructs the children of men to live in to-day. The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses is to forego all low curiosity, and, accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live, and all unawares the advancing soul has built and forged for itself a new condition, and the question and the answer are one.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Over Soul
After a week’s hiatus for personal respite, I am returning to writing this week with a pause in what will be our lengthy treatment of the topic of principles-based ethics to examine one of the most vexing and immovable facts of life: uncertainty.
Life is change. Every atom in the universe is moving, and therefore the entirety of the universe changes unceasingly. The inherency of change to existence produces questions that have no definitive answers:
Is the future fixed and determined? If so, is it determined by mechanistic laws of physics in which every event was caused inevitably by the immediately preceding event? Or is it determined by the fatalistic fantasy of divinity, whether benevolent or malevolent?
If it is not determined, how do we understand the indeterminacy? Does it mean that anything can happen from one moment to the next? Does it mean we are completely on our own, the victims of our own choices and ignorance?
What else could it mean?
In either case, a determined universe, or an indeterminate one leaves us with the same practical reality: we don’t know what comes next, and we know even less about what comes much later. If events are mechanistically determined, we lack sufficient understanding of the mechanism to be able to predict the future. If the future is indeterminate, we have no way of ever becoming able to predict it.
Thus, whether we have truly ‘free will’ or not is almost as irrelevant of a question as it is an unanswerable one. We act as if our decisions make a difference, and we are all always striving to match our actions to what we expect will lead to developments or changes that we want and prevent changes and developments we do not want.
We all do this to some degree unsuccessfully because the complexity involved is not only material complexity, for which quantitative calculation is possible to some degree, but is also the collective set of actions of other conscious beings, for which measurement and calculation are entirely impossible.
I can hardly calculate how I myself will feel about something in the future, much less how anybody else will feel.
When an 18-year old enters university, she may believe that she wants to be a medical doctor or a corporate executive. But by the time she finishes university, she will be a different person with different wants and needs, all of which will have changed to some degree or another in the intervening period. The imagination of what it would feel life to be a medical doctor crashes into the reality of a different person becoming the doctor, which itself will be different in actuality compared to imagination, where all of the details of the texture of lived experience are like smudges in the mind’s eye. It turns out those details of texture influence our level of happiness and satisfaction far more than the elements that occupy the childhood or adolescent fantasy.
Accepting that this is and will always be the case is part of what I call the existential grieving process. Existential grieving is long journey of adjusting ourselves to a world that we could imagine being much better, and different, than the one we encounter. Accepting the world as it is, accepting our individual circumstances as they are, accepting our decisions and living in the world they have created — this is the first step of real living.
How can you live and truly experience anything in a world you reject?
But getting to acceptance of any unpleasant fact is always a process. Properly understood, the acceptance of an undesired reality is the purpose of grieving. The self, in its attempt to escape pain, tries to evade accepting undesired information.
The first ‘stages’ of grief are basically the evasion phases (denial, anger, bargaining).
What Scott Peck describes as “doing the work of depression” is the conscious embrace of the experience of pain, working through its implications, and then saying ‘I will live joyfully in this world, too’.
The end of grief results from the end of resistance.
Uncertainty is one of the facts of life over which each of us must grieve in our own way, for it has different implications for each of us. For me, the difficulty of accepting life and the future as uncertain is in accepting that no matter how hard I try, I will always make mistakes. I will always miscalculate. There will always be something overlooked, something that couldn’t have been planned for, and in spite of all of that, I still have to act. I still have to make decisions. I cannot hide from the inevitability of my mistakes. I must be willing to get up and be wrong a hundred times a day in the hope that once in a while, there will be a day in which I get something right.
Being wrong does not diminish my character or intelligence. Being wrong does not mean nobody will listen to me again in the future. Being wrong is just an inherent part of being alive.
The struggle in my case has also required me to accept that I cannot predict or control the decisions and behaviors of other people, however hard I may try, however hard I may work toward mutual understanding and coordinated action, we each inhabit our own universe of experience. We can only perceive anything from our singular, subjective perspective, however much we may be able to model components of experience objectively. Our models are still formed inside our biased minds, perceived by the same mind mis-processing the inputs of the senses.
We are all, always trapped inside the black box of the Subjective.
This exacerbates and enhances the anxiety engendered by uncertainty. If I must act, but I cannot do anything to avoid acting at least somewhat incorrectly, it would seem life is a guaranteed loss, and I am damned to bounce from failure to failure whilst my body decays into wrinkled oblivion, my organs shut down, and eventually die.
It is no wonder that our world has the problems it has. How many ways to people seek (always unsuccessfully) to evade acknowledging this excruciating fact — that the only certainty we have is death, and aging is, in the final analysis, a blessing compared to the alternative of dying young.
Yet none of my goals and dreams are certain. None of the hopes and yearnings can be guaranteed, even by hard work and prescribed actions. No, the only certainty is death itself, and in everything else, we must take our chances.
Should I then concede to death? Should I say “ah, beautiful death, I shall wait for thee, my only certainty! Blessed certainty, sickness and death! Come quickly that I may be spared uncertainty!”
Well, I can only say for myself that the answer is a resounding ‘no’. At the moment of the writing of this essay, I have lived on this earth and in this body for 14,763 days. If I died tomorrow, then death would comprise 1 / 14,764 days of my life. If I live to be 80, the ratio will be 1 / 29,200.
Why would I live as if I were dead any of the other days? Why would I let this one unfortunate and painful day prevent me from living in love, joy, and peace all the others?
The answer, in practical terms, has been “because everything else has been uncertain, and nothing has ever worked out as I planned and hoped.” When I was younger, I thought I needed more formal education, power, and money, and eventually I would have all of the resources to make things work out as I planned.
I did not even need to acquire lots of power and money to realize that having it would only create different scenarios in which my non-acceptance of present reality would lead to suffering.
The harder I have tried to create certain outcomes, the more I have suffered. The more I have embraced uncertainty, the less.
Indeed, the more I have embraced uncertainty, the more unexpected good has come to me — this is Grace, or Serendipity. The acceptance of uncertain futures likewise eases the pain of accepting the certainties circumscribing action in the present, and the immutability of the past.
I may look at the present and be extremely upset with myself for what I did or failed to do in the past which led to the present looking as it does. The more I reject the reality of the present, the less open I will be to what might come next — and I might consequently miss extraordinary blessings simply because my awareness is directed away from the present, where possibility unfolds moment-by-moment before my eyes.
Ours is an age of anxiety and restlessness. People are worried about the future. They are worried about their children’s futures. Threats appear to grow on every side as we witness the revolt of Nature against humanity’s excesses, the increased tensions between nations, the decay of our institutions, and the unraveling of our economic system.
But every age is an unraveling of the past and the remaking, reforming into a new age — and will be endlessly and forever. Every age dies in the birth pangs of the next. Our grandparents’ generation witnessed the end of traditional culture and the modes of living that went with it. Their grandparents witnessed a still different age unravel and new one made, and this is the case eternally, without beginning or end.
Indeed, even our creation stories are stories of radical change. The Garden of Eden is an age-ending / age-beginning story of the same kind we are presently witnessing. When we see that this is the null hypothesis rather than something exceptional, it should be less frightening. Moreover, few people would choose to go back and live at any particular point in the past in a one for one swap.
We may see the decay of things, but who would trade any of it for 18th Century dentistry?
The alternative to dwelling on the sadness of what is being lost is to focus our attention on expecting and working to create the conditions for positive surprise to emerge from the uncertainty. When we are faced with uncertainty, we can choose to wait for a joyful surprise, or brace for impact.
Which seems like it will lead to a greater level of satisfaction?
Joy is the contented anticipation of Surprise, and leads to us to express energy in the form of creativity.
Fear is the apprehensive anticipation of Surprise, and leads to the waste and expense of energy in the form of anxiety.
We are ever presented with the choice: joy or fear?
With every negative event, with every acute awareness of uncertainty, we choose, consciously or unconsciously between these two modes of response. There is no third way, there is no middle option.
Joy and fear are hard trade-offs, and even numbness and indifference are just fearful responses, trying to avoid the pain of having a hope dashed. For fear of the pain of disappointment, we condemn ourselves to the joylessness of accepting it without even giving surprise a chance.
“Better negative certainty than whatever surprise may come,” many will say.
Yet if we dig deeply into the cause of this pattern in order to do better than say “be joyful, dammit!” as practical advice, we see that fear-based responses indicate a lack of trust, both self-trust, and trust of the world/universe at-large.
If I know myself, and trust myself, and trust that I am strong enough to face any eventuality, only then can I approach uncertainty with courage and the joyful anticipation of the surprise. Even more if I learn how to trust the universe at-large, and to trust even what seem at first to be painful, unnecessary, and undesirable events.
For trust in the universe is not to say “everything that happens is good,” but to say that “out of everything that happens, good can come.”
Further, it is that self-trust says “everything that happens is an opportunity for me to embody goodness, and to bring goodness out into the world.”
We can do nothing to change uncertainty itself, except create negative certainties. But we can fundamentally alter our relationship to uncertainty by accepting it and its negative consequences and acting toward goodness in spite of them, and better yet even, leveraging them, using them as fuel and food for the good we want to see in our lives and the world around.
There is all the joy a life can want, right in front of us, wrapped in the surprising splendor of uncertainty in the present.
The choice we each have in every moment is: unwrap the gift, or throw it away without even knowing what is inside.