*Content note: I open with a metaphor of running a race and having the finish line altered midway, which may be triggering to some. To skip the metaphor, begin reading at the asterisk.*
Imagine you’re running a race. You’re on the course, somewhere midway, with other runners around you. This is not your first race. Maybe it’s going well, maybe it isn’t, but you know what you’re doing. You’ve trained for this. This is what you do.
First you hear murmurs that the finish line has been moved. Mid-race? To where? No one’s sure. Why? No idea. Is there a problem? Unclear. Are we even running the right way anymore? Who knows.
Then you’re told that the race has been postponed. Postponed to when? Are we safe on the course? Should we keep running? Should we stop? Should we turn around? Does what we’ve run so far matter at all?
Some people stay the course out of habit or disbelief. Others speed up, sprinting off in various directions. Still others slow down, and ultimately stop in their tracks. Whatever the response, no one is simply running the race anymore.
For many, this just happened to our lives.
We knew what we were doing. We had energy in a certain direction. Maybe we liked the course, maybe we didn’t, maybe a mix of the two. Perhaps we felt robust in keeping pace, or perhaps we felt chronically exhausted and behind. But, we were going along, doing what we do. Doing what we believed would work, what we’ve been taught would get us where we’re trying to go.
Now, that idea has been betrayed. All that work, that training, that progress, was not the guarantee we were told it would be. It did not deliver us from point A to point B as it was supposed to. So now we’re in between. And where is that? This is not a place we planned to spend much time: it was supposed to be merely a point we passed through en route to somewhere else.
So we keep going, but in a new haze of uncertainty. Or, we start sprinting in panic. Or, we grind to a halt in bewilderment.
*In other words, we’re in a crisis of faith.
We all have a worldview, a system of beliefs for organizing reality. Ideas we trust as the bedrock of our experience. When something happens that violates these beliefs, it can leave us reeling. We no longer know what to think, how to make sense of things. We feel at risk, without the certainty of knowing. In this void of trustworthy meaning, this Dark Night of the Soul, we can feel lost in obscurity.
The irony being, now that we’re no longer hastily passing through en route to somewhere else, now that we are where we are with our attention un-held by promises or certainties or goals, we can see more. We can hear more. We can feel more, where we actually are. From here, we can catch a glimpse into the constant change we live with, and the mind trying to order it.
Meaning is what our brains do for survival. We want to make sense of the world, our lives, ourselves, so we can navigate best. So we can take care of ourselves and our loved ones. So we can feel good, not bad. So we can have some assurances in all this uncertainty.
Meaning is important. Meaning helps us evaluate threat, and keep ourselves safe. But meaning isn’t stagnant: it can’t stay the same forever. It needs to adjust to new information, new circumstances. We know this inherently, that over the course of history the human consciousness has shifted, in accordance with how life on this planet unfolds over time.
But that doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with it when it’s happening to us. Even when we’re safe, a breakdown in meaning threatens our survival mechanism. Our brains think we need to make permanent sense of things in order to be okay. That we need to find the one way of understanding that will always be correct.
But we don’t. Certainty is not required for wellbeing. Which is good news, because certainty is not available. Threat brings feelings of uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean all uncertainty is a threat.
The brain will go on searching for meaning to keep us safe, and we should let it. There are things we need to know. But when the meaning it finds eventually has to change again, we can recognize this as simply the way of things. The way humans move through time. The way of adaptation in a constantly changing reality.
As you adapt, consider the following:
1. Settle for safe enough. Sometimes our safety needs attending to. Other times, we are reasonably safe from most threats, but our brains want us to be even safer than we are right now, from every conceivable problem it can conjure. This is how brains work in a world in which perfect safety isn’t guaranteed. But if you find yourself reasonably safe in this moment, trying to get even safer has diminishing returns. Your brain might need help dialing it back, so you can experience the benefits of being out of threat.
2. Allow uncertainty. We don’t always know. And what we do know may change. That’s okay! Meaning changes over time as our lives unfold. Your brain is just trying to help you survive by giving you good permanent answers for how things work. See if you can let yourself inhabit the place of not knowing, and teach your brain that you can be okay there.
3. Hold without grabbing. When your brain feeds you new ideas about reality, see if you can hold them with a looser grasp. We need ideas, but we likewise need flexibility with those ideas to let them come, go, and adapt to new information. Can you hold new meaning as a rough draft, knowing it will shift again as things continue to develop?
4. Choose process over content. When you’re searching for meaning but you’re coming up short, consider the process you’re in. The process of searching for meaning is meaningful in and of itself. You don’t have to get to a permanent answer to be getting somewhere. Maybe the process of searching is itself an answer to the question.
5. Find this moment. Even if you have no idea where you are, you know where you are: here. Find yourself here, in the present. Whatever you know or don’t know, what’s this like? What sensations are you feeling? Maybe you can’t locate yourself in meaning, but you can locate yourself in experience. Amidst uncertainty, we can ground ourselves where we are.
6. Turn to wisdom. Who do you turn to when you’re searching, unsettled, or in a crisis of faith? Maybe there are community leaders you trust to help you navigate change. Or people whose writing you find useful through life transitions. Or texts that support your grappling. The world is filled with wisdom on the human experience. Find who or what makes sense to you, supports you, meets you where you are, and brings you solace.
What helps you find wellbeing in uncertainty?