Uncertainty. A lonely man loosing the way on a foggy day.

What the Future Will Bring—Learning to Live with Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a very good thing: 

it’s the beginning of an investigation, 

and the investigation should never end.

~Tim Crouch

What’s going to happen?

When we don’t know the answer to this question, we can feel anxious or worried. We like to know what’s around the bend and be prepared for it. Circumstances can be especially difficult when there is a higher chance of something scary or tragic happening—like when we are faced with a serious illness, either in ourselves or in loved ones. But we can prepare ourselves for uncertainty and develop practices that help us cope.

It can be helpful to remind ourselves that nothing is certain. We never truly know the outcome of any circumstances or events, and the best thing we can do is develop a comfort with uncertainty and habits that calm us down and provide perspective.

Perspective—acknowledging the omnipresence of uncertainty

Because nothing is certain, uncertainty is our lifelong companion. By staying mindful of the fact that we don’t know much about what the future will bring, we can get used to the presence of uncertainty. If we stay mindful of the uncertainty of the little things, we will be more comfortable with the uncertainty of the big things, too. We can prepare ourselves to roll with the punches and handle unexpected situations (see Future). With this perspective, not knowing what’s around the corner doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety.

Uncertainty on a low simmer

If we think too much about the potential negative outcomes of our lives or the lives of our loved ones, we can easily fall into a pattern of always focusing on the worst-case scenario and fall into a negativity rut. We can all too easily tune into whatever negative event might happen, even when we’re not consciously worried. This can wire our brain to zero in on those negative outcomes so that when circumstances arise where a more significant negative outcome could occur and we become consciously worried or anxious, those emotions are primed in advance and can be much more intense.

If, however, we stay mindful of our emotional states and our thoughts, we can be intentional about keeping them positive. We will have a foundation that is more stable and will be better able to handle negative outcomes when they do arise.

When uncertainty is overwhelming

I have a friend who recently lost her spouse. In the weeks leading up to his death, he was in hospice, and his passing was inevitable, but they did not know when it would happen. She was dealing with uncertainty in the most intimate and intense way there is. She was able to be with him and be present, but the amount of pain and emotional turmoil he was feeling and knowing he was going to die imminently made the present full of uncertainty and highly uncomfortable.

No matter how much we prepare for the unknown and wire our brain to be open-minded to whatever may come, there will always be moments that are extremely tragic and painful, moments where you just want the uncertainty to end but when it does, you lose something precious and irreplaceable. There’s no getting around these moments, and there is no magic trick that will make them easier. Sometimes, all we can do is endure.

Probability—uncertainty’s sensible cousin

Another way we can deal with uncertainty is with a good dose of reality. I’ve been on a serious Dragnet kick recently, and Jack Webb’s focus on “just the facts” is sometimes the best approach. If we let our minds run through the gamut of possibilities, allowing it to run wild with anything that may happen, our emotional response to all these possibilities will be more likely to also run wild. But if we look at the chances of certain outcomes happening and act with appropriate caution or abandon (according to our own tolerance for risk), we can focus on the outcome that has the highest probability of happening. We can give ourselves permission to believe what we expect to happen will happen based on previous occurrences. Uncertainty will still be there, but it won’t be the overriding influence on us.

We don’t know what the future will bring. But if we stay positive and open to possibilities, we can learn to live with uncertainty.

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