by Max Sirak
We live in an uncertain world. We hate to admit it, but it's true. So true, in fact, physicist Max Born wrote, as quoted by Leonard Mlodinow, “Chance is a more fundamental conception than causality.” (The Drunkard's Walk) This idea probably sits poorly with most of us, quantum physicists aside, for two reasons.
The first is because causality, on a local level, the me-and-you level, is something easy to observe. I can take a full glass of water, knock it over, and cause it to spill. You can go turn on the stove, touch it, and cause your hand to burn. These and thousands of other experiences like them prove our agency in the world.
The second is because it's scary. It's a big, indifferent world out there. It sits in a bigger and more indifferent solar system, which in turn rests in an even bigger and more indifferent galaxy, which itself is part of a bigger and more indifferent universe, one of many in the grandest and most indifferent structure of all, the multiverse.
And, because of the salience of our experiences and the immensity of our universal setting, we don't feel great about uncertainty. Instead of making friends with this fundamental truth and learning the best ways to work with it, we actively strive to do everything in our power to rail against it.
Whatever Gets You Through The Night
On a global level – there's religion with its partisan deities and eternal lives. The former a response to cosmic indifference, the latter a response to impermanence. There's science with its supreme belief in the powers of knowledge and reason. If only we could know more, then we could figure it all out, and be safe. There're nations believing security rests with being bigger and more powerful.
And, on a personal level – there are things we do in our own lives in the name of assurance. As children we're told to get good grades, participate in extracurriculars, and get into good colleges. Then we get good jobs and save money. We go to the doctor and dentist to stay healthy. We marry and start families so we have people to come home to. We make plans for this weekend, next month, and next year.
All of this we do in order to feel safe. Except there is a huge difference between feeling safe and being safe. Don't get me wrong, taking care of ourselves, building careers, having families, and planning our futures are fine. They bring us joy.
But it's important to remember the fundamental nature of our reality. No matter what we build, no matter how we spend our time, security is a myth. There are no guarantees. We might not make it home from work today, wake up tomorrow, or get to go on that vacation we've been planning for months.
There's a reason Sterling Archer's third biggest fear is what it is.
Great, So We're All F'd In The A?
I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer or Gloomy Gus. That's not what I'm about. I just want to be clear on our initial conditions. It's no one's fault. It's not like any of us got a say in the fundamental laws ruling existence. They were here before we were born. They will be here after we die. But, there are strategies we can adopt and practices we can incorporate to make our journeys more pleasant, or failing that, less painful.
It starts with outcomes. Specifically, how we relate to our expectations and the level of our emotional attachment to them. Oscar Wilde wrote, “The secret of life is to appreciate the pleasure of being terribly, terribly deceived.” (A Woman of No Importance) Because, it's a delusory world and we're going to be wrong. A lot.
However, instead of realizing this, we persist in falling in love with our ideas of how the future should be. Forgetting how little we control and entirely over-estimating our influence, we go on attaching ourselves and our emotions to specific events. Which, as it turns out, is an incredibly precarious precipice.
There is danger in thinking, “Once I get my new job, I'll be happy.” Or, “Everything would be better if I could just find a nice guy/girl to settle down with.” Or, “This is going to be a complete waste of time unless my team wins.” In each of these instances we're staking a portion of your wellbeing on ends largely outside our authority.
Maybe you don't get the job. Or, perhaps you do, only to find out you're actually worse off. Maybe you never find that guy or girl to settle down with. Or, you do, and guess what, everything isn't better. Turns out, playing house has its own set of challenges. Maybe your team doesn't win. Maybe in the seventh game of the World Series your teams ties it up in the eighth, only to lose in extra innings. All these things can happen.
All these things have happened. To me.
Here's What I've Learned
The genuine amount of things we direct are precious few. We have our actions, addictions notwithstanding. We have our thoughts, save being stuck in feedback loops. And both of these pale in comparison when pitted against the mind-rending amount of things beyond our governance.
That's why it's so crucial we exercise our dominion when and where we can. And, the most important place we can do this, when it comes to quality of life, is in our expectations. “We probably can do more to affect the quality of our lives by controlling our expectations than we can by doing virtually anything else.” (Barry Schwartz, The Paradox Of Choice)
To date, the best way I've found to heed Schwartz's advice is a combination of a Stoic technique and something I learned from Jack Canfield. The Stoics taught a practice of negative visualization, letting ourselves go and imagining the worst case scenario. Canfield teaches the importance of managing our reactions to events. Put them together and you get what amounts to an Oreo of Insight, a delicious ancient Greek cream filling sandwiched between two Canfield cookies.
It starts with creating an opportunity for choice. The idea being, when we become aware of our severe emotional attachment to a desired outcome, we need to stop. We slam on our mental emergency breaks and do a 180. Don't keep fantasizing about all the good to come from the conclusion we want. Spend some time imagining the horrors of it all going to shit. This way, we've at least created some sort of template for dealing with the aftermath. Either way.
Enjoying Your Philosophical Cookie
The first step, as always, is awareness. We need to able to recognize when we're significantly attaching emotions to an outcome. The best signal to look for within is palpable excitement. Feeling way jazzed and happy when imagining things going a certain way is a dead giveaway.
Next, as unpleasant as this may be, it's time to practice some negative visualization. And, honestly, I'm not saying this just because I happen to be a writer, but it really, really is best to do this exercise in writing. The action of putting thoughts into words and words onto a page relieves psychological tension.
So we write. List all the atrocities of things not going our way. We don't censor ourselves. In fact, it's better to keep asking, “And then what?” with a macabre curiosity. This is our Nightmare List.
Now it's time to retrace our steps. Starting from the moment when we'll eventually learn the results of whatever we're anticipating and working backward, what benefits have we enjoyed up to now? What happiness have we experienced? What fun have we had? What pleasures have we been fortunate enough to revel in? Again, the “And then what?” is a useful question to keep at hand. This is our Joy Index.
Okay, that's it. We're done. All we can do is wait. It's up to Clotho and her sisters now. We're in the best position we can be in. We've controlled what we can to the best of our ability and we know the results are bound up in forces much larger than us.
BOOM – the moment of truth. Hey look, we got lucky and won! We got our desired end. It's time to celebrate. Or…we didn't. Despite our best efforts, things didn't work out. But now, instead of wallowing in despair and sinking into a mire of grief, we're prepared.
We've got our Joy Index. We know the chain of events leading up to the unsatisfying response wasn't all for naught. There were pleasures along the way. The steps to get here weren't miserable or wasted. And, we've got our Nightmare List, which means we've at least spent some time considering this possibility. We can take even more solace in the fact our imaginings are likely to be way worse than how it will actually be.
In The End
Is this a dolled up recipe to gild the pain of losing? Yes. But, given the uncertain nature of our existence, the lengths we go to pretend it otherwise, and how emotionally invested we get in results we don't control, I thought this might be a good thing to put out into the world.
Consolation isn't a bad thing. It's actually the second best thing. Next to winning. It's just, chances are, the dice won't always roll the way we want.