Welcome to my first essay of my new newsletter sonder, essays! To get back in the groove of things, I decided to wax poetic about uncertainty. It’s particularly relevant right now as we’re still dealing with the pandemic. Uncertainty can be a beautiful thing. I hope you take the time to read this and learn how to sit with yourself and not hold your own feet to the fire in living according to some façade of certainty. Once we relinquish ourselves from that false conception, we can begin to live the life we deserve.
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Photo of Big Bend National Park by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash
We enjoy comfort. Comfort is comfortable; complacency is comfortable; the poison we know is better than the poison we don’t, it’s comfortable, there is less fear, and far less uncertainty.
It’s this sense of comfort that drives us to a paradoxical destination; unhappiness and discomfort. When we are so comfortable within our space, any semblance of interruption of our perceived comfort can make us stumble.
The certainties within our lives are not real, they are a façade. There is no such thing as certainty. I was sitting in my AP chemistry class almost ten years ago when I was frustrated to learn about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If we have entire branches of science — chemistry and physics — dedicated to describing the laws of the physical world and we can’t even be certain about the dimensions of foundational particles, then how can those branches of science describe anything at all? I was driven from radical religion and into science due to its explanatory and logical elements. I felt betrayed as I realized there are limits even to science.
Science doesn’t intend to explain anything beyond a shadow of a doubt. It is intended to describe physical laws to the best of our ability with the condition that these descriptions will be updated as more empirical evidence flows in. Those are very different concepts. The ultimate goal of the scientific process is to understand everything, but the self-defeating beauty of realizing that there will likely always be more discoveries to be made is what makes it all worth it.
This very literal physical understanding of uncertainty teaches us to release ourselves from the constraints of certainty. If science is not bound by absolute certainty, then surely we don’t have to be too. The human impulse towards certainty is one that cannot be separated from the success of our species. We have succeeded not by our physical strength or size, but our brains. We are able to perceive risk and understand the repercussions of our actions, both in the short and long term. And yet perception of risk and understanding of probability are not the same.
We crave certainty in our lives because humans are obsessed with control. We strive to control everything we can and with this obsession for control, we inadvertently prevent ourselves from growing through the unknown. Our thirst for control is less about us wanting to be prepared and more our insecurities personified.
When we think about the future, we tend — either methodically or through overthinking — to evaluate the possibilities. We’re doing this all the time. There’s a reason that the expected next step in the evolution of both computers and humans is creating an interface between the two; human brains are remarkably skilled at processing loads of information quickly. We make decisions before we know it. You know those moments where we react and then afterward have no idea how we caught that ball or avoided that car? Our brains, to put it lightly, are incredible. This evaluating of the future is happening all the time; when we’re thinking about our work commute, we can predict if there will be more traffic on one route depending on the weather or an event. This process isn’t unlike the uncertainty of the future. There is just some comfort in knowing that the short-term unknown will become a known in the short-term.
Not only are humans control freaks in this way, but we’re also pessimistic and narcissistic. Our brains, and its complicated processing and rationalizing capabilities, also keep us alive by ensuring we’re aware of death and harm. Our brains are naturally pessimistic when it comes to evaluating odds. If the odds are 51% that you’ll win the lottery, you’ll likely assume you won’t win; if the odds are 51% that your team won’t win, you’ll likely assume your team has a far worse chance of winning. We tend to overestimate the risk in life. But this is more complicated than that. We need not simply learn how to recalibrate our understanding of risk, but also recalibrate our assessment of risk. As we expand on our assessment of risk, we also become stronger at taking the risks that make us better in life, and possibly, more importantly, accepting the consequences of taking risks.
A 50% chance of something happen means that if that event was run 100 times, the expected breakdown is it happening 50 times and it not happening the other 50. But each subsequent event is not affected by the previous outcome, so if you flip a coin 100 times, the coin does not know the outcomes of each individual flip. This concept, while elementary, is not as intuitive as it sounds. There’s a reason so many people go bankrupt individually. You know why the house always wins? Because these events — and the rare time someone hits big — average out over time, eventually favoring the party with far higher odds.
Life is not so simple as to be inanimate assessments of risks without a human element. There are going to be risks in life where the rewards are far larger than the possible consequences. I moved to Pensacola, Florida, and took a leap of faith in my new career move. My first assessment of the situation was bland; it was a pragmatic observation of the odds, the risks, the potential rewards, and how I’d do my best to make it worth it. My second assessment was human: It was an emotional, gut-driven decision to explore this huge, beautiful, scary, and confusing world.
This is where uncertainty, when we go against our impulses of narcissism, pessimism, and control, is the spark to a beautiful life. Uncertainty means life is wide open; life is a blank canvas of which you get to paint the outcome. There are parts of life that are far out of control. Those parts of life are difficult, but consider this: They are already out of your control, there is nothing you can do to change them, so what you can do is contemplate how you respond to these events and how they can provide you a stepping stone for growth. Every roadblock in life is an opportunity to learn.
As we navigate the terrain of month five of a global pandemic, we continue to live amidst the perpetual unknown. Everybody, and I mean genuinely everybody, has a different opinion on how life should be approached to best mitigate the consequences of the pandemic. We know the evidence supports mask-wearing as a preventative measure so why are so many people against wearing them? I get upset when I see people not wearing masks or railing against mask mandates as “infringements on liberty.” That argument does not compute to me; a global pandemic reinforces the notion that we all intuitively understand that to be the best society as possible, we must be collectivists and strive to look out for one another.
But the global pandemic does not introduce us to any new aspects of society that we don’t know already. We have already seen how climate change, widely agreed upon by climate scientists to be human-induced, can be undermined by uncertainty. If there is this much disagreement about what certainty even means, arguing about it further is only a waste of time. If we live only according to certainty, we are living according to nothing at all.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much uncertainty. There still is, but our knowledge has improved significantly. Life amidst uncertainty is a guarantee. Whether you’re thinking about the certainties about the position or momentum of a subatomic particle, or a global pandemic, or whether you’re going to go into rejection after an organ transplant, or if there’s going to be more traffic than usual on your commute, uncertainty is around us all the time. We are far better equipped to handle uncertainty than we realize.
We must learn to recognize uncertainty, we must practice how we assess risk, and we must learn to ebb and flow with the ebbs and flows of life. It is incumbent on us to look at the uncertainty in life and ask ourselves what we have control over, what we can do to change the possible outcomes, what we can do to make the desired outcome the best possible it can be, and most importantly, how we’re going to handle not getting what we want if we don’t get it. We should probably even prepare for getting what we want in the event that it isn’t as great as we thought it would be.
Uncertainty doesn’t have to be scary or even a negative thing. It can be a beautiful, confusing, unknown. Life wouldn’t be fun if everything was certain all the time.
Thanks for reading issue #1 of sonder, essays! I’m really excited to be back at this. I recently watched the docuseries “The Last Dance” about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan’s 6th championship run. I’ll be writing about basketball, sports in general, the making of a legend, humans as gods, and the beauty of male love (and why toxic masculinity is bad for everybody). I hope you look forward to upcoming issues. Please let me know if there are any topics you’d like me to write about or anything else you can think of that I can amplify.
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