To live in the United States of America in 2021 to live with uncertainty.

As I write this, President Joe Biden is taking on the challenge of figuring out how to 300 million Americans vaccinated while keeping our deaths from COVID-19 below 1 million people.    

We are not certain he can do this, just as most Americans, even those who voted for Joe Biden, are uncertain that he can accomplish even a few of the things he wants to do to improve our lives and restore trust in democratic government.

Uncertainty is clearly part of the human condition; some thinkers see some level of ambiguity as valuable. It can keep us from becoming too egotistical while also challenging us to a level of self-questioning that is necessary for psychological health, whatever our age or condition in life.

What makes our current level of uncertainty so anxiety-ridden is both the sheer number of things that are up in the air (beyond carbon emissions) and our awareness of all of them through our internet connections and digital devices.

We simply cannot be sure of much of anything these days — that includes our future health, personal and political. Even those who “recover” from COVID can have permanent health issues. And we have seen so many “unprecedented” things happen in American politics recently that we long for a news anchors on TV to shout that something “precedented” happened today!

Meanwhile, our future on the planet remains threatened by climate change, which may or may not be unprecedented. We just know that it could reduce life on earth to an extent that would make our COVID pandemic seem like the highway death toll on a holiday weekend.

How can we deal with the high level of uncertainty we face?

Having enough money will allow some to temporarily flee disasters, but the consequences of global warming – mass migrations, wars over food and water, destruction and displacement as sea levels rise – these cannot be addressed by money alone, nor can they be escaped by those with great wealth.  

Some counsel trust in God, which might work for those who accept such a divine protective source. Many do not, and even some of us who do accept some form of divinity are also convinced that only with human help will such a divine solution have a chance to prevail. Remember, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said: “Without God, you cannot; without you, God will not.”

Can we just learn to live with uncertainty? Last year, the actor Alan Alda was quoted as saying, “With the world changing so rapidly, there is no point in being optimistic or pessimistic about anything. You’ve just got to surf uncertainty, because it is all we get.”

Gee, thanks, Hawkeye!

Wait a minute! Did my “M*A*S*H” hero just use the word “surf?” It might be worth a try. To surf successfully, you must catch the wave and then ride it without getting sucked under or thrown.  It involves risk but is beautiful when it is done well. Besides, Hawkeye is telling us that we have no choice. Uncertainty “is all we get.”

Given the choice between uncertainty and a false certainty (e.g. QAnon), it might be well to take a second look at the certainty we long for. We all know people who seem very certain of what they believe and how they live? Do you enjoy interacting with those folks? Do you think that person might be insecure and hiding behind a false certainty? It can happen.

And what’s more, certainty can get in the way of truth! If we are absolutely sure we are right about something, we probably are not. Certainty can be our ego’s way of avoiding responsibility for the hard work of discovering what is really true, instead of staying with the easier task of just believing what we wish were true. We have seen much of the latter in recent years.

If we accept the inevitability of uncertainly, we might feel less unnerved. Besides, it is both intellectually and emotionally healthier for all of us to admit and work with uncertainty rather than insisting that we know the “whole truth,” when none of us do.

Ken Wolf is a Democrat and a retired Murray State University history professor. He speaks here as an individual and not as a representative of either of these organizations. He can be reached at wolken43@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of the Murray Ledger & Times.

Recommended for you