It’s hard to accept that just when you think you have a good grip on life, it does something to upturn it. Fear and anxiety come at every turn.
Some people are good at facing it, others like myself not so much. For most of my life, I kept safe, but in recent years my ambitions have soared. I want to be a successful writer or artist, so I’ve had to learn how to act, build, and create without guarantees.
Again, just when I think I’ve got it sorted, self-doubt and uncertainty plague my mind. Problems occur when these fears and anxieties become too much.
It’s a sign of the times, and how we face such uncertainty will decide how well we thrive and how happy we will be.
Our age of uncertainty
We seem to live an age of ever-greater uncertainty about the world and our personal lives. With worries over the climate change and the state of the economy, to work, income and relationships, politics and more.
We have to face the fact our lives are not as safe as we thought they were, and many of us struggle to meet such a reality. In the rise of depression and anxiety, I see a tragic and even absurd lack of coping ability. (The Four horseman of the modern apocalypse).
Our culture doesn’t help us cope much, either. What with our consumer culture, blaming, shaming, post-truth. You have to work hard to find the ideas that help.
What happened is the old ways of explaining the world, religions have fallen in status and plausibility. Just as Nietzsche put it in the ‘Twilight of the Idols’. ‘God is dead!’ What he means was that we are giving up on old ideas of the world.
Not that long ago, the world order was more straightforward. You had job security. There was religion which gave you meaning to your life. You also had a community to support you.
‘The old ways no longer work’.
It happened because we’ve been chipping away at certainty for hundreds of years. Social change, the movements of people, the rise of technology, especially the internet. Philosophical questioning, the plurality of worldviews, and the honest expression fo different opinions.
Now there’s a palpable sense that we are lost, and our leaders seem far more self-serving than providing real guidance. It’s an Interregnum; here the leadership is either non-existent, lacklustre or in flux.
We don’t know how to define ourselves. So we’re adrift, without direction. What we face today is an existential crisis, which as a global society, we’ve never had to face before. Worse still we don’t seem to know-how.
Responses seem to run from blaming others, narcissistic self-absorption, denial, addiction, distraction, and pessimism.
Uncertainty is the issue
All the problems we face come down to how we meet this uncertainty. Not the day to day fears, but the big questions about our existence: What should I do with my life? How should I live? What do I want out of life?
How do we as a species, learn and grow for the better? What values do we want to hold?
We have to face facts. As much as we want safety and security, and go to absurd lengths to find them; life is always uncertain. We can avoid it for a time, but sooner or later it will find us, just as COVID-19 upturned the world.
Anxiety is our desperate attempt to create order from the chaos, to find safety in the whirlwind of change, a life with such uncertainty is hard to bear. Yet a part of us enjoys and even seeks uncertainty and change (order can become dull after a time). I see now how bad we are at facing the fear and doubts that plague us when facing a world change.
How this brave new world turns out remains to be seen, but I’m sure those who learn how to cope and even thrive in change and uncertainty are the ones who will find success and happiness.
The unknown is both scary, but also compelling. Its asks questions of you. Are you good enough, brave enough to walk here, ‘To go where angels fear to tread’?
The usefulness of suffering and facing it in small doses teaches us how to handle it: sink or swim. It may be that it’s a necessary part of our evolution as a species.
Back when the world was smaller. We knew far less. On maps at the edge of the known world, beyond the borders, were written,’ here be dragons’. We must become like the mariners and frontiersmen of old. They knew how to face the unknown; they lived with it.
Like them, we have to take responsibility and face this uncertainty. We can no longer pretend we can solve it, or that it doesn’t exist.
For my part, I favour philosophy, especially that of the Far Eastern types like Taoism and Buddhism. They accept uncertainty and fear is part of life, change part of the cosmos. Western thought made the mistake of thinking there is a solid foundation to existence.
The eastern values of compassion, mindfulness, harmony and balance can work well in a world full of change.
Letting go of the ego
We need to shift our attitude about existence. More than anything else, I feel it’s our ideas about reality that needs to change. Our understanding of the cosmos is flawed. It’s not about some idea of building a house on bedrock but accepting our life is more of a boat on an ocean, like the Neurathian bootstrap or ship.
Based upon the Ship of Theseus it’s a metaphor, a ship that’s perpetually falling apart, but being continually repaired/replaced by its crew.
As imagery, the boat represents our society, knowledge, and ideas, the human-made parts of human existence, afloat on an uncertain sea of the cosmos.
We grasp towards certainty because we feel it must exist, but that’s just our insecure ego driving us to tribalism and provincialism. It means more competitiveness, more chaos and less co-operation.
Fear creates a bunker mentality where the world is seen as dangerous and full of enemies. It fosters selfishness, instead of altruism, conflict instead of harmony. It creates vulnerability because others can exploit our insecurities for their ends. Ideologies spring up, fundamentalism, culture wars, divisiveness, and partisanship are the results.
Our ego’s inability to face uncertainty creates so many problems. The neediness for security creates the suffering we experience.
It’s about getting over your self. The ego needs to protect; it’s what the ego does. So it creates defensiveness, aggressiveness, where other people are seen as potential threats ( us vs them mentality).
Uncertainty is the issue, but the problem is how we face it. The drive for certainty in a cosmos that doesn’t provide it now seems patently absurd. We search for answers, by presupposing they exist.
Our biases and neediness guide our quest for truth. We believe we can find the answers; some claim they have found them. But such claims fall apart under scrutiny. It shows the search for truth is neither objective nor impartial but fueled by our need for security.
No wonder such an image conjures the pointless task of Sysyphus. Our existence is absurd, tragically so.
We have to accept the ambiguity of existence, that sometimes there are no answers. It’s what Jacque Derrida calls an Aporia, paradoxes that result in an impasse. We run up against our limitations.
What we need is a new Renaissance, A spiritual one not an intellectual like that last one. We reframe our world to include uncertainty and build practices that help not hinder. That is to organise our world based upon our psychology.
But we can do better than this, better than climate change, better than the conflict and needless suffering. I have to believe we can do better than this because the alternative is just unthinkable, I can’t accept that this is the best humanity can do. That our peak, our golden age has been reached.
Adaptation is the ethos, but the process is compassion, empathy, knowledge and courage.
We need to find some way to learn how to accept our finite uncertain existence. Amor Fati is what Nietzsche called it. ‘Love your fate’.
Our lives are paradoxical; we are pulled in different directions. Trying to clean up the messiness and ambiguity will diminish us further, lead to disappointment, hostility, and more suffering.
Our attitude, therefore, has to change from one perfect safety, and towards acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity. ‘This is the job’ is what I sometimes say to myself, ‘This is how things are’.
Life doesn’t have to make sense, because it’s not a problem to be solved but an adventure to be lived.