When I was in middle-school I sat through The Poseidon Adventure squished into one theater seat with my best friend Robin. I was distraught through the suspense; I held onto Robin, terrified that no one was going to make it out alive. Then, at the end of the movie, the survivors are whisked to safety and the song, “There’s Got to be a Morning After,” full of resolve and optimism, plays.
I’m thinking of this movie, this song right now because it feels as if over the past four years, we as a country have been climbing through the capsized ocean liner, hoping for salvation. But before we can get to the part where we rub our eyes in the blinding sunlight as we look up from the ship’s hull, we have to go through our darkest test. We collectively might be like Shelly Winters or Gene Hackman and get so close only to have it all slip away in the end.
And the uncertainty of what the next few days or weeks will bring is just about to kill me.
In a year when every week newscasters hyperventilate about one “unprecedented” event or another, you’d think we might have become acclimated to unpredictability. But hardly; the do-or-die nature of the election has cranked up the tension to almost an unbearable level.
In normal elections, we could expect to be put out of our misery soon after the polls close on the West Coast. But again, there’s nothing normal about this year, this election. We’ve had a taste of the torture of an undecided election back in 2000. If we get inconclusive results, or if one party even claims the results are inconclusive, we are in for an agonizing period of suspense like nothing this country has seen since South Carolina was loading cannons aimed for Fort Sumter.
Living Through the Mayhem
We as humans weren’t built for uncertainty. Our natural tendency to avoid ambiguity is encapsulated in the proverb, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Author David Rock states in Your Brain at Work, “The brain craves certainty. A sense of uncertainty about the future and feeling out of control both generate strong limbic system responses.”
In the modern age, we have grown more allergic to uncertainty. Technology and science have given us the illusion of control, and the relative stability of our society means the steeliness of our nerves hasn’t really been tested.
“In my experience, there are two ways to solve the `problem’ of the unknown: by decreasing the amount of perceived risk or by increasing our tolerance for uncertainty,” Eric Weiner, an expert on philosophy and human nature, writes in The Atlantic. “Most of us focus almost exclusively on the former. Many philosophers think this is a mistake.”
But how do you do that? How do you toughen yourself to ride the uncertainty unscathed? Here are some musings that might help.
Embrace Uncertainty; Brace Yourself for the Pain
Nothing good comes out of demanding and obsessing over clarity; it actually creates more stress, without helping to move an issue forward to a conclusion. “The more you resist uncertainty, the more pain and suffering occurs,” writes therapist Annabella Hagen in Psych Central. Researchers have found that intolerance for uncertainty puts people at greater risk for ailments such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Hagen continues: “Uncertainty is unpleasant. You don’t have to like it. You only need to decide to allow it and keep expanding the space for it while it is visiting you in this very moment. Observe it, and let it take its natural course without pushing it away.”
The Serenity Prayer Has It Right For These Times
We’ve all heard of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
You may want to get used to repeating it, because this is the kind of thinking that will keep you sane. The Serenity Prayer is actually a central principle of Stoicism, a philosophy that flourished in the third century B.C. in Athens. “Much of life lies beyond our control, Stoics believe,” Weiner writes, “but we do control what matters most: our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. Our mental and emotional states.”
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action when necessary (peaceful protests, letter writing, for example), but it does mean we should remove the emotion from it, as much as possible. This way we can act more effectively and sustain our equilibrium as we move ahead.
“Our protective mind may advise us to curl up in bed and stay there,” writes Hagen. “However, will avoidance provide us with moments of joy despite the turbulence and uncertainty around us?”
There is strength in numbers. We all know that. So, when you’re feeling most afraid and unclear, tap into the knowledge that you are not alone, that millions like you are suffering through this time together.
Gather with others who are feeling unsteady, not to rant and rave, since that can send you farther off kilter. Come together to do your own kind of praying–to God, to the universe, to the powers that operate in humankind. Praying is how spiritual people do their worrying.
The Pendulum and Other Philosophical Rules
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King Jr. said. It’s a quote so worth remembering that President Obama had it woven into the rug in the Oval Office. Add these words to the Serenity Prayer to keep in your arsenal, as the days and weeks ahead go by.
Take comfort in the fact that mostly, though not always immediately, good wins out. Hitler, the Confederates, and others who have not valued human life eventually got their comeuppance. Karma is a bitch, but its work isn’t always evident up close. It zigs and zags; the pendulum seems to be swinging in the wrong direction. But, just as there is a true north, there is also a true moral code that cannot be ignored forever.
Search for the Bright Spots
No matter what happens on Election Day or the weeks afterward, there will be some bright spots. Cling to those, build your stamina from those moments. Then keep calm and push on. Always push on to the blinding sunlight. That’s what Shelly and Gene would have wanted.