Coping With Uncertainty

There is a genre of op-eds/”guest essays” that I generally don’t read: the “what my [parent/relative/meanest boss] taught me about [life/politics/persistence/etc.]  It isn’t that this particular approach to self-help isn’t interesting or useful–these reflections are often quite thoughtful. But given the number of information resources we all receive, most of us need to pick and choose the materials we actually access and consider, and my priorities are elsewhere.

I made an exception to my usual practice a week or so ago, however, for a guest essay titled “What My Father’s Death Taught Me About Living.” I’m glad I did, because the “lesson” the author conveyed really applies to a great deal more than our individual lives; it is directly relevant to the contemporary political environment.

The author of the essay reported that, as she was trying to come to terms with her father’s imminent death, she had asked her wife about the wife’s experiences as a social worker.

What, exactly, do you do with people who are dying? How do you help them and their families? Beyond helping with their practical needs, she explained, she tried to help them normalize their feelings, minimize their regrets and see that people have the capacity to change, right up to the end.

She said that the thing people wanted more than anything was answers. How long does my wife have? Is my mother suffering? These are questions that are impossible to answer, so her work consisted of something else.

“I try to help them increase their tolerance for uncertainty,” she told me. In the absence of answers, she tried to help them live with not knowing.

This conversation struck me as profound, in ways that go well beyond the prospects of a loved one’s life or death.

I have long been convinced that living in the modern world requires one absolutely essential skill above all: the ability to tolerate ambiguity– a recognition that authentic “bright lines” are rare, and that large areas of our lives will necessarily be lived in shades of gray.

The inability to cope with moral and political ambiguity explains so much of what is wrong with today’s politics. Americans today are faced with questions that don’t have easy or obvious answers. That reality goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of bizarre conspiracy theories–such theories provide “answers” to people who find the lack of certainty intolerable. That inability to abide uncertainty also helps explain the evident need of so many people for identifiable “bad guys.”

The need for certainty partly explains the “reasoning” of people who insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good–either X is without fault, or he is unworthy of support, no matter how much worse Y might be. Their discomfort with nuance and complexity requires  an “either/or” world–not one in which progress is incremental and white knights rare.

In a very real sense, America’s political parties have sorted themselves on the basis of tolerance for ambiguity: today’s Democratic Party, whatever its faults and failures, grapples with and argues about the world’s complex realities, while the GOP responds to that complexity with “certainties” that have either been discredited by repeated real-world evidence or invented out of whole cloth.

What the Republican Party does understand is that, in a world that is complicated and devoid of certitudes, scapegoats are essential.

Are there several interrelated causes that are thought to contribute to California’s wildfires?  Too complicated; it must be Jewish Space Lasers. Do job openings available to me require skills my parents’ generation didn’t need? People of color willing to deploy those skills are being brought across the border to replace me. Are my children embracing strange new ideas that are at odds with what I was raised to believe? It’s attributable to a “woke” culture that accepts same-sex marriage and homosexuality.

See? There are clear answers…They just aren’t rooted in (or even in the vicinity of) reality.

Later in the essay, the author addressed that all-important but elusive ability to live with uncertainty.

There is something so powerful about this idea, something so broadly useful to modern life. We all want to know what happens next, to fix upon some certainty as an anchor in the rough seas of our times. But to tolerate uncertainty is to become buoyant, able to bob in the waves, no matter the tide.

I would go further than “buoyancy.” I would identify the ability to function thoughtfully and purposefully in an increasingly complex and ambiguous world as absolutely essential to life in the 21st Century.


  1. Open or closed-minded?

    I deal with addiction daily, like others on this forum, which has provided me with tools to deal with this ambiguity. It is more akin to Buddhism and Taoism or Eastern Philosophies. It’s also why I understand Eastern Cultures better than most.

    “All things in life are impermanent.” ~ Buddha

    Impermanence doesn’t bring suffering; our attachment to impermanence causes suffering. The Serenity Prayer is so relevant to many people in daily recovery.

    I see closed-mindedness on both the political right and left attached to political parties as the solution to what ails us when neither offers us a solution because they are both controlled entities – neither represent the people’s will because they serve monied interests.

    We are disconnected from what the people support through polls and what we get from Washington. The information we need to make solid decisions is controlled (media).

    Watching Elon Musk traverse Twitter through the “open flow of information” and a $44 billion investment will be a future MBA/PhD case study. 😉

  2. Uncertainty? There certainty of a constant that is reality. Change. And change is good. We are again in uncharted waters. Whatever we were doing five years ago, is no longer relevant. If we refuse to adapt, life is not sustainable in the long term. Vote for enduring values and adaptive leadership.

  3. This essay and points made by everyone strikes at the heart of Rebecca Costa’s thesis in “The Watchman’s Rattle”: Humans have evolved much faster socially than they have biologically.

    That being said, the 200,000 year-ago human was on the knife edge of survival EVERY DAY. Uncertainty had to be dealt with immediately for the sake of the survival of the tribe. Today, the black v. white behavior harkens back to those days of hunter/gatherer/cave dweller. The point of an evolved society is indeed coping with uncertainty. If we humans hadn’t learned to do that in the great majority, we wouldn’t be here today.

    So, once again, we’re talking about a relatively small percentage who have never or have given up on nuance. They haven’t evolved socially enough to adapt to the rapid changes occurring everywhere. That said, the only CERTAINTY that persists is war and human conflict…for whatever reason you’d like to select. The rational majority has allowed the concrete-thinking minority to create 75% of the unrest and fratricide throughout history. Todd’s drumbeat – and mine – about our government being owned and operated by the very few big money interests drives the engine of zero-sum outcomes. Democracy and an egalitarian view says that everyone has a chance to lead at least a safe and comfortable life in our country.

    Today, that 25% are armed to the teeth and lusting to mow down those blood-sucking liberals. This is different than at any other time in our country’s brief history. Will we survive as a democratic republic that indeed addresses uncertainty with good government? Tuesday’s vote will speak volumes about that outcome.

  4. “What the Republican Party does understand is that, in a world that is complicated and devoid of certitudes, scapegoats are essential.” An old adage, “Everybody needs a dog to kick.” I recently posed the question, how much of Trump’s White Nationalist MAGA party is based on George W’s Patriot Act which threw out Rule of Law to accomplish their acts against democracy as being acceptable.

    President Biden’s recent speeches to America and President Obama’s speech in Wisconsin specifically expounded on the one fact that we are fighting to maintain democracy, on saving a government “of the people, by the people and for the people” is on the ballot in this mid-term election. Occam’s Razor; “the law of parsimony, that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” We can also apply a statement attributed to W.C. Fields to Trump’s party; “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” It is the uncertainty of their future which Trump has planted in the minds of Republican sitting lawmakers and the voters that has “earned” their loyalty. We believed in 2020 that the presidential election was the most important election this country has faced since the Civil War. It was merely the first step to oblivion becoming our way of life with the destruction of democracy, Rule of Law and loss of our Constitution we are facing next Tuesday. It doesn’t appear uncertain to me and it scares the shit out of me. Remember 2016 presidential election when we didn’t believe it possible American voters would actually put “The Donald” in OUR White House.


  5. Matt Taibbi will be interviewing the Klippenstein brothers this week, who writes at The Intercept and have uncovered the plot of our Federal Govt via DHS to “control disinformation.”

    Our government has been controlling information via the “press corps” for a very long time and through “agreements” with social media giants Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

    Elon Musk has removed Twitter from the public sphere by taking it private. More as that hot mess unfolds.

    This is from Taibbi’s Substack:

    “I strongly encourage everyone to read “Truth Cops,” in which Ken and Lee produce a host of important revelations about the breadth and ambition of the federal government’s plans for controlling information flow. The piece shows how a DHS advisory committee containing (now former) Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde sought to expand influence over the “information ecosystem,” and uses court documents and texts to make the case for what law professor Jonathan Turley describes as the government “using social media companies to engage in censorship by surrogate.”

  6. I think accepting ambiguity is, in many ways, a sign of a well developed mind. Unfortunately, sound bites sell and fast sound bites require clear things to blame. It takes time to explain nuance and by the time you’ve gotten (at most) halfway into an explanation your audience has decided you’re weak and boring and wrong. Bumper stickers place blame quickly and fast/easily explained “must” be true and right for a distressing number of people.

    It doesn’t help that most news coverage eschews nuance and complexity for fast and convincing in pursuit of a dollar.

  7. This one case where the ME young people have a huge advantage over us older folks. For them, there is little ambiguity: “I live my life according to the morals, views and standards that I create.” Thus, no reason to vote.

  8. Having grown up in a seriously dysfunctional household where the rules changed at the whim of one adult, sometimes minute by minute, adapting to those rules quickly was a survival skill we learned quickly or suffered the painful consequences.

    Anxiety about the consequences of the midterms throughout the country at every level has caused me to vote early, turn off the commercial networks’ flood of incredibly nasty and often deliberate lying if not subtle “misinformation” political ads. My instinct is to hunker down and make myself small, blending into the background as much as possible. That strategy got me through years of uncertainty when I had no ability to control events.
    I do have agency now to make changes even though in Indiana that agency has been severely hampered by gerrymandering, role purges and suppression tactics aimed at keeping my agency in check by those in political power who insist that everyone comply with their ideology.

    The President’s speech last evening was a powerful reminder of just how precarious this election is for our system of governance.

    “We the people must decide whether we will have fair and free elections and every vote counts. We the people must decide whether we’re going to sustain a republic, where reality’s accepted, the law is obeyed, and your vote is truly sacred. We the people must decide whether the rule of law will prevail or whether we will allow the dark forces and thirst for power put ahead of the principles that have long guided us.”

    VOTE! Encourage everyone you know to vote. It really does matter.

  9. I think the GOP does not so much believe its apparent certainties, but believe that it puts “certainties” out there
    because its leadership understands that that is what its minions need to hear. The GOP, as I see it, is
    interested in little other than money and the power to access it; money for the wealthy, who will then support
    those who bring it to them. And, rather obviously, the wealthy are overwhelmingly white and male.
    I will posit the idea that the wish for certainty is a large part of what has long been a major draw of
    religion, which has become so much of an issue in today’s politics, with the evangelicals especially
    championing the “Y” guy. Since everyone’s god-thing is omnipotent, “has a plan,” and thus there are no
    coincidences, there is, at least. and thankfully, ultimate certainty in the universe.
    From the Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics, to not knowing that we will wake up tomorrow, or
    survive the day if we do, not knowing can be scary, leading to the anxiety that has been shown to inhabit
    so many conservatives. Is the conservative movement all about conserving some traditional, valued, past?
    Well, then that past is presumably a thing that they “know”, can be certain about.
    P. S.: Love those woke social workers!

  10. Entertainment is now pervasive, persuasive, and possessive in that it constantly exposes us to an imaginary world in which our lives can be without further needs if we were only wealthier enough to afford to buy it. Why? Our entertainment comes pre-soaked in advertising, which also entertains in order to hold our attention, and portrays this just-out-of-reach world that could be ours if only. We are made to feel inadequate if, in fact, we are not wealthy enough. We are made to feel superior if we are. We are a country of the elite and the oppressed which is both fact and fiction in which we live immersed.

    Which should the government be most concerned about? Those who have it all or those whose lives are wanting and needy.

    Republicans say the wealthy because they earn it and those who feel entitled to be wealthy but there are others standing in the way. Not enough to blunt the consumption that feeds their ego but enough to fuel their insatiable need for more recognition. The royalty of old. The upstairs people in Downton Abbey.

    Democrats say the needy because for the country to be great the citizens need to be protected as much as possible from the threats of uncertainty. The downstairs people in Downton Abbey.

    Many of us have given up being an informed electorate so we can live in an imaginary world defined by consumption.

  11. How anyone can live for more than thirty years without understanding that change is the universal constant is beyond me. Perhaps we should give every high school graduate a copy of Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin” with the lyrics underlined, in a folder marked “The Only Thing You Really Need to Know.”

  12. Vernon, I’d add that our species has evolved much faster technologically than we have either biologically or socially. But thinking in evolutionary terms, human societies are in their infancy. That seems hopeful to me.
    Lester, you need to work on your own tolerance of ambiguity. Young people don’t fit the stereotype you describe.

  13. Sharon,

    Great points! Thanks. Given that dinosaurs were around for about 150 million years, “modern” humans for only about 250,000 years and hominids for maybe 4 million years, your statement about societies existing in their infancy is accurate. The problem is our societies still seem to behave in an infantile manner. When will we grow up and stop killing each other for the sake of…take your pick: religion, money, land, politics? Whatever?

  14. Hmmm…Good points. I prefer ambiguity and playing around with abstracts. I think that is why I have gravitated to courses in sociology and psychology, the study of human behaviors.

    I do feel the media feeds into this need for certainty and simplistic explanations because it fits neatly into their time allotments.

    Working in psychiatry for the past 24 years, there is rarely anything that is truly concrete–black/white. The variables that impact us and contributing to maladaptive behaviors that do not serve us well are too numerous. I often get irritated because people come wanting a quick, simple fix to their depression, anxiety, personality disorders, mood, etc…they want that magic pill (folks it doesn’t exist) to fix everything and when I chronically bring up therapy–there is resistance to doing the work needed. Therapy requires the work needed to manage ambiguity—living in the shades of grey.

  15. This seems like a group of intellectuals analyzing behavior as if everyone were an intellectual.

    In reality neuroscience studies have shown that people make 90+% of their decisions with their subconscious minds and then use their conscious cognition primarily to justify those decisions. This is probably because the frontal lobes represent a recent and tiny portion of the capacity of the brain while what we think as ” the subconscious” is the part that has been there since the first mammal. Being driven by emotion, trusting your intuition, going with the gut: that’s your mammal brain speaking. Conscious reasoning makes you human, but it’s still a primitive system and it takes energy and discipline to use it.

    Maslow’s hierarchy represents millions of years of evolution and the resulting layers of the brain (whether Maslow knew it or not).

    Most people just don’t have the capacity to deal with the uncertainty, or they are driven back to base systems because of deprivation or trauma.

  16. My comment was made before I read some of the last ones. I was not intending to diminish the comments of anyone, but just to bring the conversation around to the reality of the limited cognitive capacities of humans.

  17. Over it–totally get where you are coming from–goes back to my thoughts from yesterday. Most are sitting at the Maslow’s 2 pillars. So much of what I hear through media, pundits, pole explanations, issues on messaging, etc…what can we do to get people engaged? Why are people not engaged–why don’t they care about democracy, etc…We know why–the people on this blog are able to have these discussions because we more than likely have our foundational needs met–we must remember that others don’t and not to blame those but recognize why–

    If you deal w/ humanity at a very vulnerable, personal level you realize how limiting we really are—on a giggle side note. I do tell my friend of faith that humanity must be an example that there is a God or higher being because as a collective species we are too damn dumb and selfish for us to have lasted this long. 🙂

  18. Over it and Elaine; I spent from March to August fighting with the billing department at my eye doctor’s office over a $40 fee I paid at the appointment, E-mails with info and mailing copies of bank statements got nowhere. Finally got a copy, front and back of the check with Dr.s name on it cashed the week after paid and numerous other items, they cleared the bill. Two weeks ago I switched from Spectrum, after 6 weeks of losing cable channels and Internet repeatedly and working with chat agents, 4 cable guys rewiring everything (they said); last week and again this week I received statements from them saying Amount due, 0.00; payment due on receipt. Spectrum had qualified me for the Affordable Connectivity Program to pay part of my Internet; they simply notified me I qualified me and I agreed to accept. Trying to switch to AT&T DirectTV Stream I was told they needed my application number which I didn’t have so I filled out the form they sent. They messaged the last 4 digits of my Social Security number were not valid, I DO know my SS number. Filled out the next form they sent and received a message from the FCC that they can find no evidence I exist. I went to the bank to cash a $25.00 check, refused because my check repeatedly got an “error” response, as did using a bank withdrawal form. Working with my favorite banker, he finally got off of “hold” on the phone to learn there was a system problem in the bank, effecting all branches. He sent me home so he could work, 5 hours later he messaged me I could pick up my $25.00. My daughter-in-law paid a $1,230.00 dental bill and contacted her health care who refused to reimburse the portion she was due; it seems she paid the dentist at the clinic and her health care received information from the dental administration, she is still trying to get this problem resolved.

    “… just to bring the conversation around to the reality of the limited cognitive capacities of humans.” Dealing with those in jobs with reputable businesses who obviously have such “limited cognitive capabilities” added to the current Constitutional Crisis and the election only 5 days away have me doubting my own capacity to dress myself in the morning.

  19. JoAnn–Preach!! Healthcare and Insurance and all the billing crap–I sometimes wonder if it is a conspiracy to make these systems so poorly and not intuitive in the hopes people give up trying in order for them to keep money. Don’t get me started on my soap box about our healthcare and insurance companies—I’ve been a nurse for 26 years. Just another institution that needs a complete overhaul

  20. lh – thanks for the article. It’s a long one, so I will gobble it up over a couple of days…

  21. Todd: re “information flow control”: ever hear of FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act?
    I see how you’re using the Fox News technique of stating shaky premises as “questions”. We report, you decide, only they don’t actually report, they just ask snarky questions. Leading the witness, in legal parlance.

  22. I am so glad I no longer live in the US watching two groups of “adults” claim to know what is real when one group, the Republicans, can only sow dissent and ignorance.

  23. Years ago, when Ronald Reagan was elected with the very public support of the ‘Moral Majority’, my former pastor gave a sermon about fundamental religions and uncertainty. He opined that there are some religious peruasions that value absolutes over challenging faith questions. It is more comfortable to be told this is right and that is wrong than to wrestle with questions on either or both. But that’s not enough for many others. He encouraged us to question our faith, to really wrestle with difficult and uncomfortable lessons in scripture, to educate ourselves to put scripture into the context of the times, to seek out differing opinions, and to pray open-mindedly for guidance. He said questioning, researching and thinking through our beliefs more intensely and frequently would open us to new levels of understanding, new insights, and our faith would be more enlightened and strengthened in the process.

    His sermon was true about much more than religious faith.

  24. Embrace certainty. We ARE so sure of ourselves that we can throw away American democracy and trust in God to be our authoritarian.

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