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Why Uncertainty Can Be a Blessing

If living in the “Time of Covid” has left you feeling more than a little unsettled, anxious and fearful for your future, it’s hardly surprising. Uncertainty has become rife. It’s everywhere. It taints our outlook. It colours our world view. It peppers our conversation as the endless debate, blame-shifting and finger-pointing around who did what, said what, didn’t do, leaves us feeling breathless and exhausted.

Uncertainty has always been with us and will always be.

The antidote is not certainty, although having some certainty can feel reassuring. The sun will rise tomorrow. The pandemic will pass, eventually. The solution is to be more present to what is happening right now because uncertainty, just like certainty is an essential human trait.

A world that is always certain would be a dangerous and boring place. Certainty means there is nothing else you need to know or learn about. Certainty does not allow for that element of surprise, the unexpected and delight in discovery. Too much certainty blocks our imagination, innovation or creativity. It stifles our curiosity, our desire to explore or to change our mind. Our beliefs become fixed and unless some uncertainty wafts our way, we can remain chained to those unwavering thoughts that may be outdated.

There was so much I was taught in Medical School that was presented as fact, that is now known to be completely wrong. I guess that’s why we learn medicine as a science and practice it as an art…

  • We are born with a finite number of brain cells and once we reach maturity in our mid-twenties we are on the slippery slope to inevitable cognitive decline and senility. 
  • Type two diabetes can only at best be managed and is irreversible. 
  • Too much fat in our diet is the cause of the current epidemic of heart disease and obesity.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

One of my favourite TED talks given by the late Hans Rosling “The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen” is a quirky, thought-provoking exposé of just how wrong we can be about some things we were sure (read certain) we knew to be correct.

His book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, explores this a little further (though I have to say I found the tone of his writing somewhat patronising, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide and it could be the effect of translation into English). 

Smothering uncertainty with platitudes of certainty doesn’t work, a better way is to approach it like a scientist, choosing to question, unravel, experiment and come up with a new theory or hypothesis.

Our brain loves certainty because it provides us with a sense of safety. It’s OK to relax because you’re sure that your friends you’re having dinner with mean you no harm, other than a possible inadvertent dose of food poisoning or persuading you to drink more wine than is prudent. Being certain that the staircase is safe to use, that the smoke alarm will work if a fire breaks out, that the toaster will toast and not carbonise your breakfast if left on the correct setting, is all greatly reassuring.

We need uncertainty just as we need positive emotion, strong relationships, meaningful work and clear communication, to question freely whether what we believe is true. 

But uncertainty doesn’t have to be scary. Try a reframe by transposing it into a question that alleviates the associated fear. And if the question can’t be answered now that’s OK, the solution or insight may come later.

As Adam Grant in his new book Think Again shares, “true progress and personal growth are born from constantly reassessing your ideas and opinions and adopting a humble approach to knowledge.” 

Uncertainty is a gift. Stepping into uncertainty, secure in what you stand for, helps you to find meaning in the chaos of life, to retain a broader perspective, to feel grateful for what you have, to recognise your internal strengths and adopt a realistic optimism for what is possible.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge the pain and difficulty associated with a high level of uncertainty around our financial security, not knowing when we will be able to visit extended family who live overseas or whether vaccination will lead to return to greater freedom of movement. But we do have a choice, to focus more on what is, right now. What you have, what you’re grateful for and what you can look forward to, whatever that might look like.

What are you paying attention to right now?

How can you channel your uncertainty into a greater feeling of being at peace with the world, by focusing on the power and purpose you have within?

Can reappraising uncertainty raise our level of resilience?

Can accepting greater uncertainty into our lives reduce our risk of burnout, anxiety or depression?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase

If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.

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