Uncertainty invites wisdom

Accustomed to a welfare society based on the concept of security, current crises generate anxiety. We need to get out of our bubble and assume that life has uncontrollable and unpredictable parts.


The human brain tries to anticipate events to increase the chances of survival. When situations become unpredictable, anxiety ensues.

For half a century, we have managed to control almost everything through an excessive supply of technical means. The health and environmental crisis has cast doubt on that dream.

To confront this destabilization, we must once again trust not only ourselves, but also the bonds that bind us to our fellow human beings.

Uncertainty is, of all torments, the most difficult to bear, and in various circumstances of life, I have exposed myself to great misfortunes, for not knowing how to wait patiently. The writer and playwright Alfred de Musset (1810-1857) wrote these lines in his 1836 novel Confessions of a Century Child . How would you have felt in 2021? How would you live the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more contagious strains of the virus, stuck economies, confined countries and citizens who, despite the arrival of vaccines, face a more uncertain future than ever?

Without a doubt, there have been worse times in the past: with wars, crises and even pandemics more serious than the current one, which have been much more terrible tests for humanity. But the uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 pandemic has two interesting characteristics: on the one hand, it affects populations that have become accustomed to the comfort of certainty, driven by progress that offers solutions for everything. On the other hand, it seems to be the emerging face of a much greater future catastrophe, even peremptory, since it is possible, even probable, that it constitutes the expression of a massive ecological alteration that would have facilitated the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

An unpleasant feeling

Living things seem to spontaneously dislike uncertainty: to survive they need to clearly and quickly distinguish between good and bad, friend and foe, danger and safety. Hence the existence in the mammalian brain of structures, such as the cingulate cortex, which act as rapid detectors of inconsistencies in relation to what is known and predictable. Therefore, uncertainties are perceived as a potential risk and trigger stress alerts.

Humans like uncertainty so little because we are the anticipating animals par excellence. The need to control the environment, predictability and security is not only applied to the present, but also to the future. “I’m fine today, but tomorrow?” However, life is made up of fragile and transitory certainties. So how did our ancestors survive to bring us back to the present day?

Since time immemorial, in the face of the precarious nature of all human life, people and societies have followed a type of natural movement, namely, to minimize the uncertainties susceptible to control and effort, and to tolerate the remaining uncertainties.

In traditional societies, people stored food, saved, struggled not to be left alone, and grouped into vast family or tribal groups to cope with the unpredictability of material adversity. In the collective and cultural aspect, prudence was often encouraged through social stories, stories and proverbs (“A cautious person is worth two”), as well as a certain fatalism, a form of acceptance of adversity (“It is destiny”) . Also, there was great hope for tomorrow or a better future. Religion promised to reward the virtuous and anxious for the present (“Help yourself and heaven will help”), and the virtuous unhappy for the hereafter (“Blessed are the afflicted, for they will be comforted”).https://c41aa9f9d7ad10797e89e916f8bdeddf.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Our contemporary societies have evolved towards different options, guaranteeing their material security, on the one hand, through more individualistic choices and limited to the nuclear family (parents and children), not to the great clans; on the other, through a collective system of insurance and guarantees, be it social laws (professional adversities), the welfare state (natural disasters) or private insurance (health adversities or destruction of material goods). The hopes for a better tomorrow, offered by religion and belief, seemed less and less necessary, as material uncertainties seemed to recede, until they were supposed to disappear (fantasies of prosperity and immortality).

Short-sighted and sleepy, satiated by our material certainties, we had come to forget the obvious: adversity is part of life, and accepting unpredictability is part of wisdom. Let’s remember the Jewish proverb: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” A maxim that, in 2021, seems more true than ever.

Spoiled children of safety

Many Westerners had become spoiled children of security and certainties so that, faced with the turbulence of COVID-19, they are prey to an emotional upheaval: great fears about the virus and the future, and great fury, especially towards the leaders and the experts, whom they believe incapable of protecting them and giving them their dose of certainties. When is this going to end? When will we go to restaurants again? When will we have effective drugs and vaccines?

Short-sighted and sleepy, satiated by our material certainties, we had come to forget the obvious: adversity is part of life, and accepting unpredictability is part of wisdom

Adversity always returns, uncertainty always returns. To do? Wait patiently as Musset suggested? Maybe not, but we can take advantage of the current crisis and those to come to rethink our lifestyle. First, by accepting the uncertainty and adversity inherent in all human life. It is not about holding on, but about getting stronger. Adversity and uncertainty are the norm, therefore, it is convenient to accept them and prepare without giving up savoring life. Contradictory? The ancient Romans adopted this precept: Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”). In these times, we should be inspired by it and adapt it: “If you want serenity, accept adversity.”

However, it will not be easy to move from declaration of intent to behavior changes. We will have to fight against two of our contemporary poisons (in addition to addiction to security and certainties): individualism and materialism.

The fight against individualism will require a reconstruction of what we call “confidence,” which we lack. It is no longer about having confidence in oneself (personal resources), but also in others (interdependence and relational resources) and in society (collective resources). This tripod will offer us a better balance than just individual confidence.

Prepare for the unexpected

The fight against materialism will lead us to stop confusing happiness with comfort, and to accept diminishing a certainly comfortable, but ecologically destructive lifestyle. This entails many “fewer”: less meat and fish on our plates, less shopping, less travel, less consuming, and more savoring. All studies show that this is possible and that it will not affect our happiness.

We have begun our reflection with the lines of a poet. Let’s conclude it with the verses of another. All these resignations, which seem more and more necessary, perhaps offer a contemporary perspective to the magnificent and enigmatic verses that Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) wrote in 1911, at the dawn of the Great War that would end the Belle Époque: «Uncertainty We will go far and happy, never returning, as crabs go, backwards, backwards ». Thus, we leave behind our time and its mirages; we abandon our toxic pleasures under the pressure of a microscopic coronavirus. What if we turned around to take a better look at what awaits us and what remains to be done? See you in 2022, to see if we’ve learned our lesson.