Don’t Let Uncertainty Leave You Paralyzed.

Six months into this pandemic and many things now feel ordinary. Before leaving the house, we do the keys-cell-sunglasses and mask check. We automatically body-swerve around others to maintain that 6-foot gap, and we are no longer startled when we glimpse our au-naturel nails and hair. Although we have managed this enormous change that was thrust upon us, still, our feet are constantly swept from under us by the slippery thing called uncertainty. 

To deal with the ongoing uncertainty, people sought out and created new routines. We crave the security of knowing that we have some control of our day to day lives. It may seem like everything is unraveling, but we still do Taco Tuesdays. 

Humans have always lived with uncertainty, and, usually, we have dealt with it. Yes, your bus or train could crash on the way to work, but you looked at the odds and decided it was worth the risk. Every single day, 8.6-million people use public transport in the New York region, and yet the incidence of accidents is remarkably low. You rationalized this, even though every day, the uncertainty presented itself anew. We felt safe and in control, even when our safety was not guaranteed.

 But now it feels as though we are constantly off balance. We find out our schools, colleges, offices, or gyms will open on this date in this format, and even if it less than ideal, we jump at the chance of locking something down. We put the plans in place, set actions in motion, and exhale. Whew, back in control, we can bank on this.

Then days or even hours later, it all changes, and our heads spin as we flail around, trying to get our feet under ourselves. The uncertainty is draining and frustrating. Anyone who has ever been a parent knows this sensation; just when you think you have your little bundle of joy all figured out, they grow, and everything changes. The child who lived entirely on yogurt turns around and declares they’ll never touch the stuff again. (This usually happens the hour after you’ve bulk bought 72 tubs of it.) 

In that instance, we took a deep breath and adapted—easier, of course, because we chose to have the child. It is not that easy when we feel impotent. We begin to think we are the universe’s chew toy, tugged at, thrown aside, picked up, pulled in every direction, and yet still meant to keep our shape. This is particularly difficult for the planners, the super-organized, the maybe less than spontaneous people. Did I hear someone mention my name?

Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you. — Eckhart Tolle

Our brains want certainty, and they use all available information to create it (as in the bus example), but now we don’t even have information. We stumble around in the dark, looking to those in charge only to find they too are flying by the seat of their pants. No educator, employer, gym owner, airline, in fact, no one ever has faced this set of circumstances, so they are as bewildered as the rest of us.

There is no Pandemic Blueprint, no handbook, or manual. You cannot download a quick cheat sheet. When we can’t handle the uncertainty, it quickly turns into fear. To counteract the fear, we remind ourselves and urge our children to roll with the punches. Be agile, open to change, we cry. But when those punches keep coming from different directions, at different times, it can feel tough to remain on your feet. And, all of this is made worse by the underlying feeling of loss—we lost the lives we loved.

Even for those who have been fortunate to settle into this new life without any real sacrifice, there is still a fog of uncertainty that pervades their every waking and sleeping moment. How much harder is it for the people who have had their lives upended? When will my job return? When can I visit my elderly mother again? Will my loved ones remain healthy? When will my kids return to a normal school day? When will we be able to travel again? It colors every day and steals our sleep at night.

Naturally, we cannot live paralyzed by this uncertainty, so the best approach—easier said than done—is to find a few ways to help you become unstuck. My own steps are not based on deep science or great research, they are things that work for me.

  • I sit still and allow myself to feel uncertain. 
  • I list what I do know. 
  • I list what I don’t know, and I rate how important it really is. 
  • Limit how much news I watch or listen to. 
  • Try to avoid the doom-and-gloom crowd. 
  • Avoid conversations with people who are fearful.
  • I try to focus on the present; what might happen versus what is happening.
  • I remind myself to breathe!

None of this is easy, and some manage better than others, just as some have it much tougher than others, but cope we must—there is no other choice. If you have the mental energy to embrace the uncertainty and open yourself to trying new things, well done. 

Regardless of how you move forward, remind yourself that this whole experience is building a level of resilience that will stand you, your children, and your loved ones in good stead for decades to come.  

Maturity of mind is the capacity to endure uncertainty. — John Finley

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