Uncertainty causes panic.
This seems to be the mantra right now. It makes sense and also reveals a hidden truth: that we expect certainty. That without it, panic arises.
A challenging truth to absorb is that the very certainty we expect or need may also be a source of our suffering. The issue here is not certainty itself, but the need for certainty.
Our attachment to needs—growing to expect them—can find us lost in their absence.
Rather than continuing to fill these needs, how might we dissolve them? What would evolving beyond them make possible?
Certainty, Uncertainty, and Information
In the 1950s, scientists at Bell Labs defined “information” as the “resolution of uncertainty.” This was a useful definition, as information was becoming more essential to communications and adaptive systems for predicting a stable world.
This definition inextricably links information and certainty in ways that socialize us to measure for the predictable. In the absence of certainty, we expect information.
Imagine a world in which such a definition was useful: a stable, industrial age of predictable change. As we’ve experienced with COVID-19, change today is disruptive, relentless, and complex.
“Consider this paradox: Life is naturally uncertain–
we only go about life as if it should be certain.“
Most importantly, the context for change today involves an age when information is ubiquitous and fleeting, and knowledge is fungible. Certainty is no longer the norm and never actually reflected reality. Consider this paradox: life is naturally uncertain — we only go about life as if it should be certain.
The prospect for certainty as a source of comfort no longer serves us in a world where knowledge has a half-life of a news cycle and uncertainty is the new norm. A dearth of information causes our internal compass to go awry.
That was life last week.
So much has happened over the last seven days. Each day seems like a year of change, and each week a lifetime. I live in an unrecognizable and grieving New York City.
As soon as we receive each new norm, the goalposts are moved. There is no time to adjust, settle in, or predict any certainties.
The Need for Certainty
Yes, uncertainty can cause panic when we expect, cling to and construct a world that depends on a sense of certainty.
Certainty has come to mean control, comfort, and security. Our need for certainty is a result of our relationship with knowledge. Consider the following three conditions that cultivate this need:
- Knowledge of Processes: predicting how something will unfold or how effective measures will be. This offers an expectation of control. Regarding our current situation, we want experts to confidently predict how long this crisis will last and how bad it’s going to get.
- Knowledge of Content: predicting what we’re dealing with. This offers an expectation of comfort. If we do not know how the situation will unfold, at least we know what it is and can rule out worst-case scenarios.
- Knowledge of Outcomes: predicting what the end will look like. This offers an expectation of security. Even if we don’t know how this crisis will unfold, at least we know the worst-case scenario and can begin to plan around that.
Any loss of control, comfort, or security can increase anxiety.
Two items prevent us from accepting uncertainty: unpacking certainty from clarity and examining our socialized beliefs about individualism. Distinguishing both can support us in shifting from controlling certainty to cultivating clarity.
Certainty and Clarity
I explored the distinction between certainty and clarity in a previous blog, concluding that:
Certainty is an emotional state. It is informed by fear, which offers a sense of safety and security in a predictable outcome. We grow to expect a specific outcome in order to hold fear in abeyance.
- Certainty is grinding on the last 10% of a decision to get all the information possible, at the expense of time, energy and, sometimes, resources and market advantage.
- Certainty requires us to know the outcome and to figure out how any choice will impact that outcome before any action is taken.
- A lack of certainty makes us feel fearful, insecure, and unsafe. We cannot make a choice until we know what will happen as a result of it.
Clarity is a state of mind. It is the result of practices that clear the mind. It allows us to know the next step without having to know every aspect of the outcome.
- Clarity occurs when we have enough information to make an informed decision.
- Clarity rests on a grounded sense of who we are, accepting that nothing’s certain.
- Clarity taps into our self-discovery. We make choices based on our principles (who we are), our view of reality, now, and our grounded intentions.
The unexamined need for certainty can produce anxiety, which results in an obsessive pull to make the right choice rather than the next choice.
Letting go of this need for certainty in favor of clarity begins with tackling something most powerful and often unseen: the sense of control rooted in our individualism.
The practice of accepting uncertainty involves evolving our relationship to independence as rooted in individualism into a relationship to freedom as sourced in our interdependence.
Socialized to believe that knowledge is power, we believe that knowledge offers us a sense of control, invulnerability, and even invincibility. These beliefs, from an orderly, industrial era, are now being dismantled in favor of an interconnected world of unmediated ideas and information.
When such impermanence and disruption drives insecurity, we are left to examine our relationship to individualism.
Many of our values have rubbed up against our American identity during this pandemic. Our individualism, exceptionalism, mythic self-reliance and tendency to equate “independence” with doing whatever we want encouraged some people to flock to bars and beaches – pastors even sued for “religious liberty” exemptions – rather than stay indoors to save lives.
This independent view of “liberty” prizes individual competition, defiance, and resistance over an interdependent view sourced in cooperation, connection, and collaboration.
The coaching professional reinforces some of these views and myths, most of which rest on a self-image that empowers responsibility for the individual self instead of the collective whole.
Sociologist Geert Hofstede, who founded the cultural dimensions theory, began surveying national views worldwide in 1965 on a spectrum of individualism-collectivism; uncertainty avoidance; power distance (strength of social hierarchy) and masculinity-femininity; and, starting in 2010, indulgence versus self-restraint.
According to Hofstede, “Individualism is the extent to which people feel independent, as opposed to being interdependent as members of larger wholes.” A society’s relationship to individualism is reflected in whether our self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”
The nature of COVID-19 amplifies our fears as “I” in the face of the unknown. Demands to quarantine can isolate us and heighten our anxiety. Protecting our individual “I” can provoke an “us against them” mentality.
COVID-19 also reveals the limitations of our individualism. Approaching this situation has reminded us that “we” are all interconnected; doing our part reduces the risk to society, which supports each of us as individuals.
Letting Go of Our Story of Separation
Our expectations of certainty are shaped by our belief in the primacy of knowledge and control in supporting individualism. This begins with the story of separation we tell ourselves. That you and I are separate. That I am separate from my circumstances and my environment. That different functions are separate.
The walls we place in the physical world represent our mental walls—our thinking and our worldviews.
“Two items prevent us from embracing uncertainty: unpacking certainty from clarity and examining our socialized beliefs about individualism.“
Separation is our most fundamental misperception. It shapes all our beliefs about humanity, life, and living. It seeks out knowledge to protect the self and control circumstances or others.
Even our form of knowledge reinforces separation; we break down wholes to classify and analyze the parts within them, giving us the power to control and exploit our environment. Our fragmented minds find certainty in controlling pieces that separate us from the larger fabric of life.
Consider these words from author and thinker, Peter Senge:
We take the contingent features of our current character and reify them into a substantive personality. Thus, we assign a primordial value to our ego (part) and see the community (whole) as secondary. We see the community as nothing but a network of contractual commitments for symbolic and economic exchanges. We think that encounters with others are transactions that can add or subtract to the array of possessions of the ego. But the constitution of the self happens only in a community.
Accepting uncertainty requires embracing the dual commitments of allowing for the unknown and accepting responsibility for complex wholes. By allowing for the unknown, we develop the ability to live in the question. By accepting responsibility for complex wholes, we evolve to appreciate our connection to the community, collective good, and larger systems.
Two Dimensions of Responsibility
In the practice of accepting uncertainty, we shift from responsibility for the self (part) to responsibility for the collective (whole). Consider these two sets of democratic nations:
- In the East: South Korea, Hong-Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.
- In the West: Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Of note: China released the genetic coding for COVID-19 on January 11, 2020.
Set 1: first reported cases between January 20 and 29. These democratic countries bent the curve to reduce spread. They didn’t wait for government mandates. As continuous learners, they leveraged previous lessons and began lockdown measures before the government stepped in. When asked, they share their belief in a kind of cultural solidarity — that each of them had to act for the collective good.
- Responsibility for collective society guided what was best for the individual.
Set 2: first reported cases between January 20 and 30. Cases continued to spike, increasing the rate of the spread. These countries viewed each event independently and each citizen as separate, reacting in a fragmented way. America has a patchwork, 50-state strategy and thus failed to leverage previous lessons. When asked, we proudly declare our right and freedom to rebel against societal mandates.
- Responsibility for the individual self, guided what was best for society.
Here, as they were not guided by collective welfare, individuals or states had different ideas on testing and social distancing.
On the index of the Hofstede dimension of individualism, Eastern nations average 20, while Western nations average 76.5. The United States leads at 91 out of 100. This article outlined the steps Taiwan took to keep its cases low, currently below 400.
What if we expanded our responsibility from protecting our individual independence to connecting to the larger fabric of life of interdependence?
Such a leap requires clarity—to act on what’s next without having to know or control the outcome. Clarity begins with a willingness to accept the truth of uncertainty.
Learning Clarity (as Practice)
If you’ve made it this far, you are ready to get to work on unlearning and relearning.
Much of this involves moving from your reliance on knowledge to your clarity of experience. Testing and trusting what you experience, as a practice, is the first step toward reaching clarity.
- Consumption. Bring awareness to your consumption by observing how you numb your mind and emotions with news, social media, distractions, junk food, alcohol, and other impulses or cravings. Avoid racing thoughts and restlessness by avoiding stimulants and caffeine.
- Silence. Observe the level of noise in your life. This blog post reveals how we’ve normalized noise. Experience more silence by creating pauses in conversations and between events and appointments. Mute the TV during commercials to reflect on your viewing experience.
- Space. Notice the effect that space has on you. In these times of self-quarantining, there is space in your calendar and in your life. What emotions or sensations arise? Do you feel you should be more productive? Do you feel guilt, grief (from loss), or vulnerability?
- Expectations. What expectations do you have of yourself, others, and the current situation? Should you know more, control more, or do more? Observe how you react, what impulses guide you, and when you are swept up or pulled away from this moment.
- Fear. Notice when you feel helpless, fearful, or a loss of control. Perhaps you are experiencing the unknown. Feel the fear, name it if you can, allow it to be and pass, and then note the next feeling. Notice if any individualism creeps in. This could show up as us versus them thoughts or a tribal impulse to protect yourself from others.
The result of these practices develops our ability to live in the question. We learn to explore situations with humility, curiosity, and interest in the face of the unknown and unpredictable; instead of reflexively seeking out quick-fixes to make our discomfort go away.
Accepting uncertainty is a practice. It involves acknowledging your views, noting and naming your fears, slowly dissolving your underlying beliefs, and daring to be vulnerable.
Once you’ve accounted for yourself, acknowledged your situation, and acquired accurate information, ask yourself: How can I just do this moment?
Pause, breathe, feel the ground beneath your feet, and contemplate:
I am here.
I am now.
All I need is within me.
All I need comes to me.
To act from clarity requires letting go of (un)predictable outcomes later or the (un)known consequences of that outcome. It’s focusing on the here and now.
This reminds me of the Zen parable of the Chinese farmer, shared here by Alan Watts. Wisely, Watts claims that because of the “interdependent and complex nature of reality, we shall never know what happens is good or bad; because we never know what the consequences of the misfortune, or the consequences of good fortune.”
All we can ever possibly know comes from a sense of who we are, from the presence of the current moment, and from our ability to envision what’s next. That’s clarity.
Then, ask yourself: How am I part of common humanity? Where can I request support? We are not alone. That’s interdependence.
In time, uncertainty will be viewed not as negative, but as normal, or more accurately, as reality.
Uncertainty still triggers me. It evokes irritation at the loss of control. It triggers annoyance at unfulfilled expectations. It provokes sadness at perceived helplessness.
But these emotions, thoughts, and sensations are neither concealed from me nor do they mysteriously guide me. They are part of me—part of us. They are part of our common humanity.
Moreover, accepting uncertainty cultivates more peace in our vulnerability. We appreciate self-discovery by accessing our imagination, acknowledge the mystery of being human, and learn to create possibility by living in the question.
Yes, uncertainty may cause panic. Paradoxically, though, the very possibility we desire also exists in uncertainty.
Reading Time: 10.5 min. Digest Time: 19 min
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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.
As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.
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