The word, ‘uncertainty’ has been a bother and a guide throughout my life. Whenever a crisis occurs or I am not confident about the future, uncertainty is present.
During the coronavirus pandemic and beyond, patterns of life in Aotearoa will keep changing. For many people resources disappear, lives are at risk, and the future is very unclear. Some people are afraid, because there are so many unknowns on the horizon.
Looking out and around
During the lockdown period I found it helpful to recall that ‘not knowing’ can be an energising state to be in. I read it as a signal, reminding me to first look outwards. I wrote the following during times of restricted movement.
Near to our home there is a short bush walk, ‘The Secret Valley’. I’m told tangata whenua walked there long ago, on journeys which may have been much more frightening than the one we face now. My footsteps are held within the passage of time when I tread this path. Some would say I am ‘grounding myself’, but I prefer to think of it as ‘walking through history’.
Further down the road I put my feet into the sea, where Te Waewae - Kapiti -o-Tara- rāua -ko- Rangitāne looks back at me. The island has lived through tumultuous years as well as years of peace now that it is cared for by people who value the land. There is a solidity in and around mōtū Kapiti calling me to stand still as the winds of change arrive and eventually make room for winds from another direction. When in city or urban surroundings I look for historical markers that remind me of the courage of forebears. Each memory helps me think about time passing and what is important to preserve. In that way I can live with my doubts and fears for at least another day.
I’m still left with questions, but they might contain some answers. A number of questions challenge me to live differently once the time of isolation ends: What is it the natural world is calling out for? What does ‘constant movement in all things’ mean with regard to how I perceive myself moment to moment? What would life be like in Aotearoa if I remembered the principle that nothing stays the same? While in this time of reflection, can I give more thought to inequality and poverty which fuel anger, abuse and violence? Can I use the gift of being uncertain to explain to those close to me it is possible to feel secure whilst everything is shifting?
In a different crisis I might ask other questions: Can I trust someone to help me rediscover the confidence I had before the world changed around me? Is it possible to visit my loss and pain and, at the same time, move to a different, more hopeful focus? What do I want to keep from the past and what can I leave behind? How can I keep memories safe and allow them to inform my new life? What is really important to me as I wonder about renewing who I am?
I've found some ways to manage my thoughts and feelings during this hiatus.
Media in all its forms is focused on describing events and making predictions. Misinformation and alerts are common. It is good to note reliable measures scientists and researchers offer because they help me gain perspective. However, I find it healing to make a call to family or friends instead of trying to separate well-founded knowledge from that being presented as persuasive, alarmist or conspiratorial. It is more settling to acknowledge nothing is certain rather than spend the night with new information on my mind. It is more energising to wait for tomorrow, knowing time will change my perspectives if I allow that to happen.
While the crisis is with me it is easy to become fearful. I can’t be sure, but fear may well be the emotional response I have to uncertainty. Once in the grip of fear I need an attitudinal change to overcome it. I’m fortunate not to be afraid of being unemployed, left alone, or unable to feed my family. My situation is not as worrying as it is for some, but I have a strong feeling of dis-ease. I have a partner who shares my discomfort, but there are times when I am alone with my thoughts. For those who are anxious about losing support and security it is to be hoped there will be enough mentors and outstretched hands to keep people motivated. For those without another person nearby there are probably times when it seems ‘nothing can be done’.
Being confined in isolation can engender a feeling of helplessness. It is often difficult to name the helpless feeling and then find renewed energy. Turning to distractions or work tasks helps some people. Others serve in organisations or movements advocating for people whose voices are often silent. Reading books is rewarding for people who enjoy literature. There are those who find it helpful to delay thoughts and feelings until they re-emerge. Finding ways to hear another voice, watch people on line, listen, play, enjoy music, theatre and screen time, makes a difference to those who can concentrate on sound, images and physical activity.
I find it helpful to think beyond my 'self' as often as I can. Consequently I've decided it’s best not to go back into the past to discover when I was first afraid, threatened, or faced with an uncertain future. I can recall some of those experiences but now is not the time to dwell on them, analyse them or re-live them. I know my mind, emotions and physical responses are linked to the past but, like Kāpiti Island, it is time to stand firm, allow elements to affect me and expect to survive well.
It also helps to notice that cellular movement in the universe means everything is shifting and reassembling to form different pathways. The natural world is not sitting there waiting for me to re-emerge, it is growing, adapting, living with damage humans have perpetuated and calling me to look at the way landscapes are changing. The message from the outside world is loud and clear to me, ‘Recognise you are changing and notice every fleeting sign there is impetus within you. Notice the thoughts you cling to and the ones waiting for permission to help you change your mind.’ Thoughts in the waiting room of my mind often give rise to creative ideas.
Being necessarily certain
It is, of course, impossible for me to live with uncertainty in every moment of my waking hours. I rely on something I call ‘day by day certainty’. All being well, I can be assured I have enough food in the house, people I love are not far away and I am feeling warm. I can see the walls of the house which seem solid and detect sounds of music in our rooms. I’m sure it is possible to walk from one end of our road to the other. I can say with assurance that I feel well today. I am emotionally certain in some ways. For example, if I was in danger, I know I would sense the oncoming threat. I am also sure I would be overcome with sadness if someone close to me died.
There is a strong conviction I am loved and that I love others. Some people have a firm 'external' faith or belief to sustain them. I prefer to listen to a number of spiritually sustaining principles that help me find my place in the universe. I also value creative ideas and insights that have encouraged me in the past. I know they are with me, waiting to be remembered. I’m very aware this kind of knowing is subjective, not able to be proven, and can change tomorrow. But for today I need to rely on 'perceived certainties' in order to feel safe where I am, and sleep well at night.
Being uncertain on behalf of others
Uncertainty and fear often cause people to lose their sense of self and disappear into a kind of darkness. I’ve been fortunate not to be paralysed or trapped in extreme despair. However, it has been a privilege to be alongside those who reach into those places. They’ve taught me they know themselves in ways I can never completely understand, and they need to fashion their own way forward.
In order to offer a way forward to those who cannot help but be afraid, I need to know their individual circumstances. General guidance will help some, but most people need someone to know them very well before being offered strategies. Advice that is offered face to face or online needs to align with who people are, where they are and what they are facing.
Suggestions that people ‘should’ live by certain guidelines in order to stay safe, healthy or motivated are usually based on the assumption that people are similar in most respects. The certainty with which these ‘shoulds’ are presented often ignores cultural, social, spiritual, physical and philosophical differences. The tenet that reliable research is designed to encourage more questions is one that keeps me searching. I have yet to discover a 'certain' pathway to advise for sustaining relationships, health and well-being. The exception is one that highlights the complexity of meanings inherent in the word 'aroha'.
It is going to be difficult for many people to find new energy, imagine the future and return to being creative. The old adage that ‘a friend needs to be alongside’ is the one I cling to. It has usually worked well as long as I ‘stay alongside’ while someone walks into new life after a crisis. Along the way, I might experience rejection, anger and disappointment and react out of my own frailty and ignorance. Finding the initiative to move back into the relationship is then difficult, but the rewards can be lasting. I can never be certain the relationship will be beneficial or harmonious, but that too, is part of the understanding that nothing stays the same.
Searching for certainty over the years
It is possible to view my preference for uncertainty as something that needs to be resolved. I’ve traced it to various influences in life. My parents lived with uncertainty even before they were married, in a time of war. Doubt and an unpredictable future were often present in their conversations. I also recall being very uncertain when people I relied on could not be trusted.
However, whilst tracing the past has been helpful, there are no satisfying conclusions to be drawn. If I keep trying to find the genesis of my uncertainty I will be left with more questions. The insights would not satisfactorily explain my tendency to be uncertain or why I enjoy it sometimes and acknowledge it as a gift. If I decided being uncertain was a ‘deficit’ I would journey to change something I actually prefer to nurture, something that helps me to be myself. If I viewed uncertainty as a psychological issue, I would miss the spiritual, social, cultural, physical and systemic implications that surround me.
I’ve looked for certainty in a number of spheres. Theological training promised a settled outline for life, but I discovered living with doubts was preferable. Those doubts enhanced my ongoing spiritual quest.
Pastoral and counselling paradigms offered psychosocial frames for people to face their fears. I soon learnt that each person was unique and theory must be changed in each circumstance. All the knowledge I encountered built resources in my mind, but open-ended perspectives were more helpful.
Philosophy papers introduced me to ‘that which we cannot know’, an all-encompassing notion which helped me approach every theory, proffered wisdom and widely accepted ‘truths’, not with scepticism, but with caution.
I taught in a university setting and remember hiding my doubts while some students and colleagues believed in the words of theorists without question. I was appreciative of mentors who encouraged me to examine the pathway from an original premise to the stated conclusion and to have confidence in my own insights.
When I encountered psychotherapeutic theory in the 1980s, there was largely new- found freedom to question carefully, rather than accepting tradition. I thoroughly enjoyed conferences where ideas presented as facts were challenged. I found it exciting to leave conferences stimulated by speakers with conflicting views. I could share my uncertainty with those therapists who remained true to the principles of psychological ideas, whilst encompassing a wider vision. I also found a place amongst colleagues who acknowledged that questions were more engaging than answers.
Being uncertain from now on
There are a number of possible ways to manage my ‘self’ into the future. It is important to keep letting those close to me hear the thoughts that puzzle me. This is sometimes forgotten as a way through but it brings rewards. I can choose to work hard at cultivating my potential and it will be helpful to restore a sense of determination in order to move forward. The gift of determination lies temporarily dormant within me. It know it is still there, otherwise I would not have achieved anything in life.
That which used to be, informs me now. It is alongside me, whatever happens. People from my past faced hurdles in their generations which were more daunting than the ones I face now. There are, of course, questions I have not been introduced to and possibilities not yet on the horizon. I hope I make time to examine important questions with curiosity whilst waiting patiently for new insights.
- A. Roy Bowden, April 2020