Being with Uncertainty
- The Existential Academy
- Thursday 23rd April 2020
5 ways to Be with Uncertainty
It feels like a curtain has been drawn back by this pandemic to reveal the reality of our human existence. The surety and safety that has acted as a filter on our lives has been shifted as we come to realise our vulnerability and understand the structures, we rely on to keep us safe. All this creates a sense of uncertainty. However, these are by no means new revelations, for many years existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard (1980) have shown that we all face a future that is uncertain and unknown to us. This is the tension we must all live with, making choices and decisions about our future without knowing how these choices or events will develop and what consequences we will need to face.
Our lives are also subject to chance (Jaspers, 1951), situations and events outside of our control can have a great impact on our lives, sometimes seeming to be unequal or random in how and whom it effects. These aspects, understandably, cause us to feel angst as Kierkegaard termed it, or existential anxiety. We try to avoid this anxiety by distracting ourselves. Heidegger (1927) describes how we participate in idle talk or fall in with others in a way that means we go along with other people and society to avoid thinking about the reality of our lives. Sartre (1943) highlighted how Bad Faith, was another way in which people avoid the anxiety of being, by not accepting the truth about ourselves or our lives.
Whilst existential philosophers do not offer any solutions for our human predicaments, existential psychotherapists, who have experience of working with these issues with their clients, can offer insights and ways of living with these existential givens.
Looking at the pandemic from a four dimensions perspective (Deurzen, 1988) highlights the multi-layered impact it has on our lives. In the physical dimension we are confronted with our physicality, of life and death, and health and illness. Will we catch the virus, if so, how badly? Will our family and friends be safe? However, these concerns extend out to whether we will be able to access essential supplies of food and medicine as well as worries over our jobs and income. The safety and trust we have in the world becomes threatened.
On the social dimension we have become restricted and isolated from the human contact that is essential to our lives. Heidegger (1927) highlighted how important other people are in our lives, as we are interconnected social beings and therefore it is hard to be separated in this way from others.
The personal dimension concerns our emotions and how we respond to what is happening to us. It is therefore unsurprising that in these uncertain times people may feel more anxious, but they may also fall into depression and despair.
Finally, the spiritual dimension is where we make sense of our lives, how we might be able to create space for ourselves to think about our lives, what is important, what we value and what we believe in.
Although thinking about our lives in this way can feel daunting, there are ways in which we can learn to be with this uncertainty.
- Acceptance: Whilst we can’t escape the realities of our existence, we can face them with courage and learn to accept that there is much that is out of our control. We need to find new and flexible ways in approaching what life throws our way. Finding resilience and strength in ourselves will enable us to find new ways to cope.
- Making choices: Attention needs to be focussed on the things that we do have control over, the choices and decisions we can take. Sometimes, even though our choices seem limited, we still have a choice, even if it is just the attitude we take towards what is happening to us or how we are organising our days.
- Using anxiety creatively: Anxiety is a natural reaction to the threat that we are facing at the moment. But it is not something that we need to ‘get rid of’ or avoid, rather we need to find ways of using this anxiety in a creative way. Anxiety creates an energy which can be channelled through exercise or doing other physical activities such as gardening or through art, music or writing.
- Making connections with others: Finding and maintaining connections are vitally important at this time. Although we can’t have physical connections with people outside of our immediate family we can connect through other ways. Finding likeminded people, groups and communities can be helpful in seeing that all of us are finding this situation difficult in our own individual ways. Sharing experiences can be helpful and give us a sense that we are not alone, which can be comforting.
- Finding Meaning: It might be difficult to think that you can find meaning in situations that cause you suffering but there are things that you can do that may become meaningful. Reconnecting to nature can have a powerful effect on our sense of calm (Harkness, 2018; Mitchell, 2019). Helping others, if you are well enough, through volunteering to deliver food and medicine to those self-isolating or giving a friendly call, can give a sense of purpose in times of crisis. The meditative quality of arts and crafts are also a creative response to difficult times.
Deurzen, E. (1988) Existential Psychotherapy and Counselling in Practice. London: Sage.
Harkness, C. (2018) The Nature of Existence, London: Red Globe Press.
Heidegger, M. (1927) Being and Time. Transl. J. Macquarrie & E.S. Robinson. New York: Harper & Row. (1962).
Kierkegaard, S. (1844) The Concept of Anxiety. Transl. R. Thomte. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1980)
Jaspers, K. (1951) The Way to Wisdom. Transl., R. Manheim. New Haven CT and London: Yale University Press.
Mitchell, E. (2019) The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us, London: Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.
Sartre, J-P. (1943) Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge.
Dr Claire Arnold-Baker is the academic manager and course leader for the DCPsych programme at NSPC. She is a counselling psychologist, existential psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, researcher and author.