How to Manage Uncertainty: Lessons from Philosophy

If there is anything that we seem to fear most in this world, it is uncertainty.

The great unknown, the darkness that lies in the abyss.

Uncertainty about how the future will unfold is the source of many of our anxieties. This is because we desperately crave certainty. We dream of secure and orderly lives where everything goes according to the plan – the script that was laid out for us when we were born.

However, if we are honest about this inquiry, we will come to the realization that there are few things that we can actually be sure of in life. I don’t really know what the future holds for me, and what will happen in one, five or ten years from now. Seemingly random events outside of my control can occur at anytime and alter the course of my life for better or for worse.

So in spite of this fundamental human predicament, what is one to do?

How can we better navigate the uncertainties of life?

Let us explore some strategies passed down to us by some of the wisdom traditions of the past.

Focus on the Present Moment

Eastern traditions and philosophies such as Buddhism prioritize the importance of living in the present moment. If you have practiced mindfulness meditation, you are probably aware of how chaotic are minds really are. Trivial concerns and thoughts can ruminate in endless loops in our brain. We are always thinking about the past or anticipating and preparing for the future.

The practice of meditation trains us to constantly return back to the here and now. After all, that is all that really exists. The future, no matter how frightening it may be, is just a thought. A mere mental projection.

Why should we let a thought take precedence over our direct experience in the present moment?

At our convivence, we can always ground ourselves in the present by shifting our attention to bodily sensations or our breath.

 This is can be our anchor while we navigate stormy seas.

Become a Hero

Joseph Campbell is famous for popularizing the archetypal narrative found in so many of the great mythologies and stories throughout history. The hero’s journey details how an individual plunges into the unknown to conquer their fears, ultimately achieving conquest and victory.

We see this story played out in many books and films in popular culture ranging from Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

Take for instance the narrative in Lord of the Rings. The protagonist Frodo ventures out of the secure comforts of the Shire to the unfamiliar depths of Middle Earth to destroy the one Ring (representing evil) and defeat the enemy Sauron.

On his quest, Frodo is constantly tested transcending constant trials and tribulations developing fortitude, strength and courage which leads to a transformation of his character and inner disposition.

The hero’s journey inspires us to overcome our fears to pursue something meaningful – something greater than ourselves. It provides a roadmap enabling us to rid ourselves of self-doubt, and actualize our full potential. Further, and most importantly, it offers us inspiration to face our inner demons head on.  

Find Meaning

In the final analysis, the world is constantly changing. It is in a state of continual flux. Uncertainty is a fact of life; however, we should not become consumed with worry.

We can cultivate strength and courage within. To do so we need to find meaning, purpose and a higher goal to live up to. Meaning provides us with direction and offers an overarching framework which can guide us through life.

This consequently allows us to transcend obstacles and the fear of uncertainty. All of our potential hardships are not in vain, but are a step forward. Meaning can provide inspiration and motivation to get through the most difficult situations. 

Victor Frankl, who survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, reminds us in his book Man’s Search For Meaning that despite the circumstances we find ourselves in, one can always exercise freedom in their attitude towards life.

Uncertainty may not be able to be completely eliminated, but it can be dealt with and managed.

Our ‘why’ to live is our saving grace, our light in the midst of darkness granting us bravery and clearing our path forward.


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If you are interested in learning more about the hero’s journey, I wrote an article on it for my personal blog here:  The Hero Within – A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

Till next week,

Andrew


16 thoughts on “How to Manage Uncertainty: Lessons from Philosophy

  1. While the world is constantly changing, so are our inner workings. Not talking about body wise, but spiritually and mentally. This causes more chaos and confusion. However, what you say is true. We have to consciously do these things to make what’s going on in between our ears as wells as in the world better. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Indeed, in my opinion it is better to accept the truth of uncertainty rather than to try to cling on to some facade of false certitude. Thanks for reading:)

  2. Under adverse conditions, uncertainty narrows.
    Not a rule, but an observation. Create a false emergency to have others move quickly. Create a false wonderland to have others find respite from emergency. Create false drama to elicit compassion from others. Create a false identity…

  3. Reblogged this on A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life and commented:

    Sharing an article I have written recently for Pointless Overthinking.

    Reflects on similar themes I’ve dealt with in the past, namely how philosophy and spiritual exercises can help us deal with the uncertainties in life.

    Some original content coming soon on A Life of Virtue on Taoism, stay tuned:)

  4. The desire for certainty is the key driver behind the creation of both mythology and religion. (Am I repeating myself?) If we aren’t in control, we want to believe that someone else is, even if that someone is as whimsical as Zeus. Having created religion to fill a personal need, it was then subverted into a means of social control, which it remains today. Think about the twin notions of reincarnation and eternal life. Both represent the ultimate certainty, something that many cling to like a life raft. The view expressed by Sartre is a much harder road emotionally.

    1. Yes, I think was thinking about that as well. However, I would extend the argument that out scientific materialist age is still engaged in the same project as our ancestors.

      Through technology we hope to enhance security, live forever and ‘overcome death’. We want to control the natural world around us. Even though this approach is secular and ‘rational’ it still has its own shortcomings.

      1. Certainly, some think that way, and I would probably put Musk at the top of that list, although I’m not sure he really qualifies as a scientist. Trump is there as well, representing the materialists.

        There are a lot of scientists with simpler ambitions to advance what we know and treat others with kindness. Their goal, at least among those I know, is to prolong quality of life, not life at any cost. Right now, the healthy life expectancy for most Americans is 6 years shorter than total life expectancy, and that gap may have grown with Long Covid. That gap feeds the exorbitant health care costs here.

  5. Big fan of Viktor Frankl.

    I’m also a big fan of Camus. Sisyphus, keeps pushing that rock up the hill every day only to have accomplished nothing. The myth is really about the life of the ordinary man who toils day after day, only to wake up the next and do it again with no apparent difference in the world. Mythology contains lessons for life as well as explanations of the supernatural.

    Today’s wage earner never changes anything in his world either. The forms keep needing to be filled out, the boxes get moved from storage to shipping and receiving, the toilets never stay clean. A human has to find meaning and purpose in all this.

    I find it interesting that Stoicism, Buddhism, existentialism, and modern cognitive behavioral therapy all seen to come to similar conclusions.

  6. This is an interesting post, and I agree with you, BUT…I believe that we are also the most important creators of certainty. Whether it is belief or simply dogged action, we most often are the ones who make certainty come to life, indeed, we must be the protagonists of our own narrative.

  7. Many people, including myself at a time in the past, have gotten so caught up in how our present situation effects our future, not giving much thought to the challenge at hand. Life can’t be managed for our goals. Life doesn’t work that way. Life is a series of provocations, which we have no other choice but to deal with.

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