Strategies for Dealing with Uncertainty

I did finish reading The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, referenced in Monday’s weekly quotes “Uncertainty in Changing Times” and learned a lot about the mistakes the mind is hard-wired to make when faced with uncertainty; how those mistakes can be predicted; how those mistakes can even be cued by those who know how to go in one direction or another. 

So resilience isn’t just coping skillfully with something that has already happened.  Resilience is also about managing our anxiety and making wise choices when we don’t know what’s going to happen, when we have no clue, or not enough clues, or mis-leading clues.

Below I’ve suggested three common strategies we humans are likely to employ when faced with uncertainty, with a strong recommendation to become competent in all of them, using them interchangeably as needed.

1.  Learn from past experience.    

“Those who don’t cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana

While not infallible, relying on past experience is certainly a good first step. We learn from our own experience, the experience of wise others, the lessons of our collective history, the wisdom of the ages. Of course, one of the things we learn from past experience is that this strategy, indeed, is not infallible.   We consciously employ other strategies as well.

2.  Take action -experiment.

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent in doing nothing. – George Bernard Shaw

Of course we try to be skillful in our actions, thoughtful, integrous.  But the element of experiment is important.  We don’t know; we try; we learn. Learning is based on trying and learning from the trying. Over and over and over.

3.  Trust the unknowing.

Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.

– John Allen Paulos

Not so easy for Westerners with our legacy of depending on scientific analysis and rational thought.  The story from the Zen tradition of the Chinese farmer and the horse gives us a perspective on this surrendering to what we can’t possibly know.

A Chinese farmer has a horse; his neighbor comes over to visit and exclaims, Oh, how fortunate that you have a horse!”  The Chinese farmer non-committally says, “We’ll see.”

The next day the horse runs away.  The neighbor comes over to offer his sympathy.  “Oh, how unfortunate that you’ve lost your horse.”  The Chinese farmer again says non-committally, “We’ll see.”

The next day the horse returns to the farmer, bringing a new mare with him.  The neighbor rushes over to congratulate the farmer. “Oh, how fortunate!  Now you have two horses!”  The Chinese farmer replies as before, “We’ll see.”

The next day the farmer’s son is out riding the mare to break it in; the mare throws him and he breaks his leg.  The neighbor comes over as before, “Oh, how unfortunate.  Your son has broken his leg!”  The Chinese farmer replies, “We’ll see.

A month later the army comes through the area recruiting soldiers.  They can’t accept the farmer’s son because of his broken leg.  The neighbor again comes over to sympathize, “Oh, how fortunate!  Your son doesn’t have to go into the army!”  The Chinese farmer again replies, “We’ll see.”

The story continues on.  We learn to keep an open mind about any particular event; we don’t always know how fortunate or unfortunate any particular circumstance is, but our openness helps us live with uncertainty and accept it all resiliently.