We are almost constantly reminded of life’s uncertainty. Whether it is a health crisis, an unexpected job layoff, a partner’s decision to divorce, or a natural disaster such as the recent flooding in Colorado, we are reminded of the fragility of life and how rapidly our lives can change in unforeseeable directions. Uncertainty often generates powerful emotions, such as fear and anxiety. Ironically, knowing that life is uncertain may also bring with it the possibility that negative situations we are stuck in may change. Having a dead-end job or an unsatisfying marriage or a rotten home life as a child doesn’t mean we will always be stuck in those situations. Uncertainty in this context can be hopeful and freeing, allowing us to dream of change.
One of the major challenges in dealing with life’s uncertainty is that we have to balance our awareness of life’s unpredictability with the probability that many things will remain consistent for long periods of time. Uncertainty doesn’t guarantee change, it simply reminds us that our best-laid plans can change or be changed at any time. For example, if we have the luxury of saving for retirement the uncertainty of how long we will live and how healthy we may be into old age frequently generates inner tension: Should I save everything I can toward having a comfortable retirement because I may live to be 90 or 100 years old? Or should I spend a substantial portion of my discretionary income to buy the home I want, enjoy travel or spoil my grandchildren since I have no certainty that I will be able to do those things in 10, 15 or 20 years? This inner tension tends to grow more acute as we age.
We have to act as if our lives will be predictable or we may be paralyzed from doing any future planning whatsoever. And while living in the now is certainly valuable and appealing in many ways, the consequences of our failure to plan can actually be quite stressful, even devastating if we don’t behave as though we have a long future in front of us. Some questions for us to discuss:
1) How do you balance an awareness of life’s uncertain nature with the probability that things may not end or change drastically for long periods of time, even years or decades?
2) What factors help us cope with uncertainty? Are there attitudes or strategies that have helped you cope with life’s uncertainty?
3) Two major areas of uncertainty are how long we will live and how healthy we will be during the remainder of our lives. In light of this fact, how do you manage short-term gratification with delayed gratification and long-term planning?
4) Can denial be a useful strategy in coping with uncertainty? Why or why not?
5) In which areas of life have you been able to handle uncertainty constructively? In which life realms do you have more difficulty dealing with uncertainty?
6) Events affecting other people we know can strongly impact our sense of the certainty or uncertainty of life. How do you work with the inevitable anxiety that arises when we hear about other people’s tragedies?