Not doubt, but certainty is what drives us insane – Nietzsche

We live in a world of unpredictable change.  It is a breeding ground for insecurity and anxiety.  Recently, after a period of stability and safety in my personal life, I faced a number of uncertainties. I wasn’t sure what to expect in some of my life experiences, yet I was certain that some of the things I did not want to experience would happen.  I found myself in the domain of calculating, worrying, and ruminating that describe the debilitating feelings of anxiety. Overthinking was my attempt to gain a result I knew I had no control over and buying into a mindset that I could change the ending.  To make the overthinking more tangible I fiercely journaled and mind mapped all the possibilities and consequences for more informed decision making.  I sought refuge with my own counsellor.

My worrying was an illogical process that concentrated on a pointless longing for a defined outcome.

Yuval Noah Harari invites us to consider what would happen if we developed a computer programme that forecasted with 100% accuracy the price of oil tomorrow?  He tells us that the price would immediately react to the forecast and that the forecasted price would consequently fail to materialise.  If the current price of oil was $90 a barrel and the programme predicted tomorrow it would be $100 there would be a rush to buy the oil today so that a profit could be gained (Sapiens 2011:268).  Such systems like these are chaotic with many forces at work and their interactions so complex it becomes difficult to be deterministic to predict an outcome that had any real truth. 

It is difficult to be deterministic because behind these systems there is always human behaviour, and the nature of being human is to be chaotic and complex.  Human reaction is uncertain rather than certain.  This is true even when we think we are being certain about something.    

The outcome of the latest lifting of Covid restrictions is to be determined by the consequences of how people will react.  Personal responsibility is the terminology used to describe a hopeful system.  It remains uncertain who and how many of us will take personal responsibility, and to what degree.  Therefore, the certainty of our freedom from ongoing restrictions cannot be predicted.  Should the hopeful consequences not materialise, we will hold the system, rather than personal responsibility accountable.  It is with some certainty that I say most human beings want to get back to pre-pandemic normality.  Yet it is also certain that what was normal has become uncertain in most of our lives.  Uncertainty is here to stay.  Rather normality has always been uncertain, and is a truth to be accepted.

Everything you have is uncertain.  Your job, relationships, money, health.  You may think that if you have these things in your life, that they are certain.  We  have come to learn that anything and everything can change in an instant.  To a very large degree the interplay between certainty and uncertainty are out of our control, and the angst of rumination is futile. Even if the only thing we can be sure with any real certainty is that one day we will die; there is no degree of certainty as to when that will happen.  What if we developed a computer programme much like the one we would like to develop to predict oil prices?  This one would predict with certainty the age or date of each of our death? We would react to that forecast and either get uber-healthy or have a last-ditch hurrah.  Either way the forecast would fail to materialise as death has the potential to be postponed or hastened on, depending upon your reaction, and the choices you make. 

People come to counselling because something in their lives feel uncertain, they have lost some control over an aspect of their living.   They seek stability, reassurance, and clarity.  They talk of behaviours and decisions that were an attempt to control an outcome and has left them increasingly confused and disorientated.  For some people uncertainty and doubt lead to choices that result in illness and dis-ease, loss of relationships and livelihood. 

Conversely, it can be true that uncertainty offers opportunity for growth and learning but this guidance is not to embrace uncertainty with a passion that dismisses the debilitating effects of anxiety.  I rarely advocate spinning a positive out of a situation that is causing doubt.  My role as a counsellor is not to give certainty nor is it to change the feeling of uncertainty.  I do, however, advocate an acceptance of the truth, the reality of a situation as it is in the present moment. I am reminded by what Eckhart Tolle believed. The worry that something might happen, rather than what is happening now, is the cause of much anxiety.  We are unable to cope with a mind projection and the ideas that we create of our future. Therefore all we have is the present – the here a now (Tolle; 2005).  This is where we can be free. In the now, the present moment, problems do not exist, and we are complete and perfect.

Think about that which has troubled you recently – what turned out to be well founded causes for concern and what became unjustified?

Create two lists of those things that you believe to be certain in your life and those that, to you, feel uncertain.

Now consider this: 

What if what was certain became uncertain? 

What if what was uncertain became certain?

Consider this present moment – the here and now – do you feel safe in this moment? What do you need right now? 

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