There are no manuals or ‘how to’s for life. There are trends and cycles and themes which persist and at times repeat but nothing which is happening now has ever truly happened before. Even an identical event happening only a few years, or even a few moments, apart is not truly identical because the world and people experiencing it are not the same. People’s experiences, perspectives, and capabilities change. Technologies, circumstances, and resources change. To borrow from the proverb, dipping the same stick in the same river twice is not possible. The waters have moved on so the river is no longer the same, the stick is already wet and so is also no longer the same.
This does not mean we go into every moment of our lives blind and empty handed. Through the accumulation of experiences, both our own and those of others, we are able to make educated guesses and predictions about potential cause-and-effect outcomes. The stick will likely make the same splashing noise and the river will not likely be suddenly twice as deep but something unforeseen could still happen to change the outcome in unexpected ways. An unnoticed flaw in the stick might cause it to split or a rock in the riverbed might tumble away exposing lose mud for the stick to sink into.
The more experience we have with sticks the more likely we might be to spot any such flaws or weaknesses and the more knowledgeable about streams and rivers we are the more accurate our predictions might be about how the materials in them will behave. The simpler the scenario the easier it is to make more accurate predictions but we can never know all possible factors and all possible outcomes. There is always room for some aspect or ingredient, however small and insignificant it may seem at first, to completely alter our anticipated outcome.
And if we were to allow, for the sake of argument, that we did in fact know about every possible factor that does not mean we would be in control of them all. It is even less possible to control all factors than it is to know about them.
Even if we were using complex dependable machinery to control the direction and speed of the river, recycling the same water back up the to the top of the flow, we could not force the water molecules to reconfigure into the exact same formation to poke the stick into nor could we have any say about an earthquake which might suddenly shake the ground just as we are about to.
Some minds and personalities respond to these kinds of imperatives with a ‘challenge accepted’ impulse. The declaration we could never travel any faster than horseback led to the steam, combustion, and eventually electric engines. The insistence we could never fly led to single-propeller, jet-engine, and eventually rocket propelled aircraft. Each step along those journeys was an attempt at recombining existing knowledge guided by intuitive supposition, the staggering majority of which failed. It is even less possible to definitively know the outcome when we are aiming into completely uncharted territory, otherwise the Model-T would have been an electric self-driving hover vehicle capable of submarine and para-orbital travel.
So then why do we heap all this pressure on ourselves and others to know about every possible factor and to know how things are definitely going to turn out? And then promptly follow through on the threat the pressure implies by condemning ourselves or others as failures when an outcome isn’t exactly as predicted or desired?
In more typical times the shortest answer is a combination of cultural pressure and the inherent uncertainty of life. Cultural expectations set certain bars and definitions of success which we then strive, and at times are aggressively pushed, to achieve. A job, a promotion, a house, a car, a marriage, children, a certain body shape, wealth, fame, the list of boxes to tick goes on and on and on never really ending since as cultures evolve they simply add more boxes. We pursue them by using recipes laid out by those who have achieved them before us, recipes which offer both guidance and expectant pressures.
But what happens if circumstances shift in significant enough ways to render those recipes completely ineffective? How can we manage our second poke with the stick when now each stick must be shared between fifty people and access to the river is limited to fifteen seconds per person per year?
We were in the midst of grappling with just those questions when the pandemic arrived. The models of careerism and property ownership were still being aggressively and unforgivingly pushed at generations who, crushed under massive student debt and with working wages enormously out of whack with general costs of living, were desperately struggling to pay rent never mind build up down payments on ever-increasingly expensive houses. The old recipes were not working and as yet no new functionally reliable ones had been developed to replace them. Then COVID-19 arrived stealing both the stick and the river.
Our current desperate and frenzied demand to definitively know what is going to happen is entirely fear driven. All our previous ingredients and recipes have been swept aside leaving us with nothing but uncertainty on all sides. And by now we’re all familiar with the impact uncertainty has on our minds and bodies.
On one level we feel convinced that certainty of the future will dispel our fears. If we know exactly what will happen we won’t be afraid of it. While it is true reliable predictive knowledge does reduce fear, it doesn’t eliminate it entirely. Watch the same suspenseful movie three times in a row. The jump scares won’t startle you with the same severity on round number three but you will find yourself preparing for them nonetheless, readying and reminding yourself they are about to happen. Because if we don’t our entire system will still flinch in response.
The other level is the need to take action but wanting to be sure that action is going to be safe. We can’t take a step forward if we feel too uncertain as to whether that step with that foot in that direction is going to make things better or worse. And indefinite inaction is not without its costs as well, now more so than ever. Staying home is the only proven method for keeping infection rates from surging out of control but we cannot do so indefinitely without causing ever worsening economic consequences.
We are standing out on the ice unsure of whether what is below us is discomfort or disaster. We can hear the ice cracking so permanently remaining where we are is not an option but we don’t know with complete certainty which direction, with which method, and at which pace will definitely lead to the safe result we desire.
It is okay to be afraid. The fear is natural and we should be feeling it. And there is no fault or weakness in desiring certainty rather than uncertainty. We need to remember that we are all in the same situation, the same uncertainty, and that is a circumstance we as a species have been in many, many times before. And we have gotten through it, we have survived. Not because we suddenly wound up knowing how things were going to turn out but because we adapted to things as they unfolded.
This particular coronavirus is a completely new strain we have never dealt with before nor has anything this asymptomatically infectious had access to such a physically interconnected world. We can use epidemics of the past as well the knowledge of those who have experience with infectious diseases to generate some powers of plausible prediction but there are so many interacting factors, a great many of which are completely unprecedented, that uncertainty will always be an unavoidable part of the equation.
Anyone claiming to know with complete certainty exactly how things are going to unfold should be viewed with intense skepticism, especially since they also almost invariably offer little to no factual information to support their claims. At the least it is their fear talking behind a mask of bravado, at the worst it is them trying to manipulate your fears to give themselves a false sense of power in which they can hide from their own.
Uncertainty is unpleasant but it isn’t going to go away. We need to give ourselves permission to be afraid but must not let our fears, masquerading as boredom or frustration or false patriotism, push us into lurching ahead blindly. We cannot afford to gamble because the stakes we are dealing with are literally tens of thousands of human lives, nay hundreds of thousands.
And once this crisis has passed, which it will, and we are rebuilding on the other side of it, which we will, do not re-saddle yourself with assumed obligations to know. We never truly know where our lives are going to lead or how our paths are going to unfold, says the guy who grew up certain he was going to be a clinical psychologist who shifted to forensic psychology the final year of his honors degree and has now spent two decades as a full-time professional ballroom instructor.
We never definitively know. It’s scary, but it’s okay.