Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty

by Aaron Longwell
March 30, 2020

Nothing feels normal. Each morning a new alert. Each night a new worry. We point fingers and lay blame but we all feel helpless. It’s hard to admit, but nobody knows what we’re in for. We are adrift.

Experts estimate between 80,000 and 1.7 million in the United States might die from COVID-19. Such a range might be statistically responsible, but feels practically worthless. There’s an order of magnitude between low and high. Would you find a doctor credible if they “predicted” your child would be between 1 and 100 feet tall as an adult? Under uncertainty like this, every decision is fraught, but big decisions can paralyze us.

Several Wall Street analysts have literally given up making predictions for the year.

The engineer in me wants data to combat the uncertainty. The optimist in me wants reasons to be hopeful. But the data I want—the predictive kind—just doesn’t exist. And as Tolkien says, “false hopes are more dangerous than fears.”

The story about the Wall Street analysts reminded me of Alan Watts’ “backwards law”, which suggests that giving up (or maybe more accurately: letting go) might be precisely the right attitude for this moment.

Watts describes the backwards law in his preface to The Wisdom of Insecurity:

When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it—which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, “Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it."

… no theme could be more appropriate in a time when human life seems to be so peculiarly insecure and uncertain. It maintains that this insecurity is the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.

“When human life seems to be so peculiarly insecure and uncertain.” Are there better words to sum up the year this last month has been? Incidentally, the first chapter is titled “The Age of Anxiety”.

I checked the date, guessing I’d find that he wrote in the chaos of the World War II, Vietnam, or even the 1918 flu pandemic.

Wrong. These words were written in 1951.

The stark contrast between our times just sharpens the point he’s making, though. The Age of Anxiety is every age. Stability is fleeting. Control and power are an illusion. We are always adrift.

So as I sit here wondering about when things are going to get back to normal, it dawns on me. Normal never was.