I doubt that there really is a Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in uncertain times,” but people do fear uncertainty. Look at the past ten days alone. Beginning with an oil spill approaching the Louisiana wetlands and popping noises coming from a black SUV abandoned in Times Square, ending with a Teetering Greece and a plunging stock market, the malaise of uncertainty has been especially severe. Wall Street hates uncertainty, reflecting everyone’s unease when the ground beneath their feet starts to shift.
But the tale of uncertainty is not so simple. There are two extremes that don’t meet in the middle. On one hand it can be highly destructive if you are bombarded by stress that comes at you at random with no predictable pattern. On the other hand, all the greatest opportunities in life begin with uncertainty, and the shattering of old forms allows new ones to arise.
First, the negative side: In a classic behavioral experiment, laboratory mice were placed on a metal grid that emitted mild electric shocks. The shocks were not fatal, but they made the mice jump. The experimenters administered the shocks at random intervals. At first the mice ran around trying to escape, but soon their behavior changed dramatically. They became listless and tired; their alarm turned to apathy. If the shocks were administered long enough, the mice died.
The conclusion is that we are not physically adapted to unpredictable stress. After the first rush of adrenaline, which activates the fight or flight response, the endocrine system becomes exhausted. The body turns on itself and begins to go into shock, a state of paralysis. That’s why no soldier can resist shellshock forever. The random pounding of artillery shells leads to fatigue, depression, and listlessness, sheerly from the unpredictability of the stress — in this case compounded by real danger, although the point is that even in a protected bunker immune to danger, soldiers would be worn down by unpredictability, just as the mice were.
The positive side of the story has to do with creativity. All new ideas come from the same place: the unknown. The most creative people thrive on the unknown: the blank canvas, the white sheet of paper, the blue-sky research project fills them with excitement. They are bored with the known. Conventional wisdom is to be avoided; second-hand answers are not trusted. If life wasn’t uncertain, all creativity would disappear. We wouldn’t celebrate the quantum leaps made by geniuses in every field. On a more mundane level, we would all be ordering the same food every day in the same restaurant — which suits a small sliver of the population, admittedly, but which feels gray and drab to the rest.
There is no real meeting ground between the two sides of unpredictability. If you are trapped in an office where the boss has random outbursts of anger and criticism, you won’t thrive. You will become disengaged and do your best to shut the stress out. Staying in your shell makes sense psychologically. If you want to thrive on uncertainty, the key is to remove the stressful element.
Here’s a clever example. At one time or other most writers have suffered from writer’s block, and as their frustration mounts, they sit before a blank sheet of paper without a fertile idea. The words that do come to mind feel banal or useless. Writer’s block can be highly destructive; it was one of the factors that led Ernest Hemingway to suicide. Asked to contribute a few words of praise for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, Hemingway found himself paralyzed. Trapped between his enormous reputation and this trifling lapse, he spiraled into deep depression. Other factors were at work, such as severe alcoholism and a family history of suicide, but writer’s block was one of the toxic ingredients in the mix.
What this grim example illustrates is that the stress of uncertainty is far more internal than external. None of us is literally put on a metal grid with random electric shocks. We cultivate our own complex responses. Therefore, to embrace uncertainty requires you to construct a belief system that makes unpredictability positive instead of negative. The following beliefs are useful but also true:
— Nature removes the old to make way for the new.
— What looks like destruction is the preparation for creation.
— Random events are the way station between one form and another.
— Your life assembles itself into meaningful patterns.
— Perception is a choice: you are free to see any situation as chaotic or creative.
— Fear of the unknown isn’t innate. It comes from old conditioning and can be overcome.
There’s a lot to be said about each point, but the important thing is to realize that without uncertainty you cannot reach your highest goals. One person’s risk is another person’s opportunity. that may seem almost a cliché, but if you look deeper, the perception of opportunity is more realistic than the perception of risk. Nature doesn’t take a risk when it develops a new species, a new molecule, or a new galaxy. It is using uncertainty as the cradle of creation, which gives us a clue to what our own attitude should be.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle