An article in The Atlantic* tried to assure us that “ambiguities have benefits even in an uncertain Covid age.”
We humans generally HATE uncertainty. Experiments prove over and over most would prefer the 100% certainty of a painful electric shock than a 50% CHANCE of a shock.
The author wrote: “In my experience, there are two ways to solve the ‘problem’ of the unknown: 1. by decreasing the amount of risk we THINK we’re taking or 2. by increasing our tolerance for uncertainty. Most of us focus almost exclusively on the former. Many experts think this is a mistake.
Decreasing one’s perceived risk might look like buying insurance policies of all types to “guarantee” bad things won’t happen or if they do you’ll be well compensated. Examples include having low deductibles on every policy, buying millions of dollars of life insurance, nursing home insurance, identity theft protection, ad nauseam. Your insurance agent will love you.
The Greek philosophers, especially the Stoics, were all about the latter — increasing one’s tolerance of mystery and ambiguity. Again, not an easy task. This is because so many Americans, over 40 million, suffer with anxieties and depression, which is exacerbated by ambiguity. Enigmas drive them “closer to the edge” that already looms large in a pandemic.
The Serenity Prayer encourages us to embrace uncertainty: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Meditating on life’s mysteries can bring about great discovery. Most scientific geniuses could tolerate confusion, randomness, failures, and having more questions than answers. Maybe this will prove true for the inventors of a COVID-19 vaccine, a field where confusion seems to be king. Unknowns drives our quest for knowledge. The best scientists know this and are willing to live with unanswered questions as they explore new frontiers.
Tolerance for unknowns and “unknowables” are also linked with greater creative thinking, as several studies have found. English poet John Keats introduced the term negative capability to describe a similar phenomenon: “… writers are at their most creative when capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any … fact and reason’.” *
Japanese philosophers argue it’s uncertainty and fragility of the cherry blossom that makes us appreciate its value more than longer-lasting flowers.
Maybe we can re-frame our fragile lives in this way to appreciate the unseen curves along the way.
In shaky times, one thing we know—the certainty of the cemetery: “It is appointed for a man to die once, then face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). But for the follower of Jesus there’s a promise of “no more tears, sadness or dying…in the New Jerusalem called Heaven (Revelation 21:1-5).