Do you ever wonder why it can feel so important to “know” something or to feel certain about something?
Knowing what to expect when you go to your job, or being certain you can count on your best friend of 10 years to be the same person they were the last time you saw them can feel almost crucial to our existence; yet some of the bigger questions...like knowing what happens after we die and a plethora of other important life questions such as this, can leave us feeling quite uncertain.
Knowing things makes us feel secure. It makes us feel right and it makes us feel good.
Why do we feel so lost when we don’t know something, especially when it relates to the really big things in life...like meaning and purpose and what we can be certain about?
Being in a faith crisis or transitioning away from a faith that provided answers or even just moving away from a place where we felt that we “knew” things can put us into a panic of uncertainty, where the very Earth beneath us seems to be moving out from underneath us, and the hopelessness of ever finding meaning that we can count on again seems utterly unattainable. When we have been raised or come to count on a certain paradigm that has told us that we have all the answers...and then that paradigm partially or completely fades away... a lot of room for doubt, fear, worry and anxiety is created. Something needs to be done with this space and this article will provide a few suggestions.
Human nature drives us to organize, categorize, know, ask why (constantly!) and figure out our surroundings as a survival mechanism and a defense against the unknown. And what is so awful about the unknown, you might ask? You might be surprised how much energy our human nature will expend just to avoid the unknown... just to feel certain about what we can count on.
Knowing not only provides us with a sense of security and ease but it also guides our lives and allows us to pivot from that point of not knowing into a decision-making process. From an evolutionary theoretical perspective, our ability to flee from predators, choose a mate that would share the responsibilities of caring for offspring to ensure the survival of our race and being able to decipher who was friend and foe were pivotal. But life is different now and it is time to change those deep rooted patterns of dealing with uncertainty.
In the United States, many of us are fortunate enough to live a privileged life compared to those who are living in struggling nations. In our first world lifestyle we are typically not faced with life threatening forces on a day-to-day basis, yet the deeply felt pangs of panic when uncertainty hits are very real. If our very survival depends on it, you can bet that we will invest a lot of energy and time into knowing. Because when we don’t know, it feels like we get left open for some huge gut punches and K.O.’s in life. Life throws us so many curveballs that we feel like if we don’t know what can guide us through those tough spots, we fear we will not make it.
The saying, ‘the only thing certain in life is uncertainty’, or in other words, ‘change is the only thing that is constant’, has an ominous ring to it because it is true. You will be faced with indecision. You will be faced with not knowing the best answer. You will be faced with consequences for making a decision that may not have been the best choice during your uncertainty. These, and many scenarios, are tough life issues to deal with and can even feel scary at times.
These moments benefit from being met with thoughtful awareness to help guide you through those rough waters.
Now you may feel that this sounds dramatic but how often do we go about our lives, somewhat in auto-pilot mode, when all of the sudden, a huge problem or tough moment shows up... we get really shaken up, start living more focused on the present moment, have a huge dose of gratitude for what we have or had (if there is a loss involved), thinking we have been awakened... only to go right back to living in auto-pilot or somewhat unhappily?
This directly relates to certainty vs uncertainty. We typically go about our lives thinking things will happen in a somewhat certain way... we get up, get ready for the day, handle our duties, come home, eat dinner, then go to bed. When something happens (such as a car accident or other unfortunate event that jolts us out of our normal routine), we are shocked into this alternative way of viewing life... that life is short, precious, we need to take careful inventory of our time spent. This is because in those trying times, we are living in the present moment and merging beautifully with uncertainty.
This is the truth of life’s experience...to live in the present moments and lean into what IS...not will be or what was. This is mindfulness. So here come the suggestions for how to deal with uncertainty—or that space that we sometimes feel that is full of doubt, worry, fear and anxiety: LIVE MINDFULLY.
What is mindfulness? One definition is this: Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness, and curiosity*. When you are curious about yourself, open to different feelings and flexible about what the answers are for you... your path will unfold. As Joseph Campbell says, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.” Making your own way is hard, and while you don’t have to be alone while you do it, the freedom that comes with being able to be the one to choose that path is incredibly liberating and takes you soaring to heights you never knew.
*ACT Made Simple, Harris, R., 2009
Look for Part 2 of Emily's post next week for the rest of her suggestions.
Emily Celis, LMFT specializes in adult individual mental health therapy for anxiety, depression and mood disorders, religious transitions, LGBT+ related issues, body image, substance abuse, self-esteem, and gender specific issues. She offers in-person and online services for adults and is also trained to work with couples, families, children and adolescents.