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Expecting the Unexpected

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.......

It’s often said that the only things we can be certain of in life are death and taxes. I’d dispute that. Instead, I often find myself talking with my clients about uncertainty partnering death as a thing we can be certain of.

Why? Because a desperate drive to find certainty is often a feature in distress.

‘If I do enough revision then I can be sure that I’ll do well in my exams.’

‘I just want to know if she/he likes me.’

‘I just need to know that I’ll get into a good university and then I’ll be all right.’

‘I need a strategy that is always going to work.’

‘I need to be sure that I won’t feel anxious.’

‘I can’t bear thinking that people might be judging me badly.’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just know? Even about what happens after death!

Or would it?

Let’s look at the big one. Death. Supposing we knew that, yes, hell exists and also how to avoid it. Or that actually, death really is the end of everything, full stop. Or that life will be going on for eternity but there’s going to be an awful lot of floating on clouds, playing a harp.

What impact would that knowledge have on you? How limited would your life choices be if you always had in mind the fiery furnace, the end of everything or harp-playing for eternity? Better perhaps that we don’t know?

Not that coping with existential uncertainty is easy either. I’m not arguing that the acceptance of doubt is easy. As M. Scott Peck writes in his opening to the classic ‘The Road Less Travelled’:

‘Life is difficult.

This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.’

Such transcendence takes a while though. Not knowing is difficult and scary. ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,’ goes the old saying. We like to ‘know what we’re up against’. ‘Know your enemy!’ we’re advised. ‘Knowledge is power’. And so on. We put a lot of faith in knowledge. But we need to learn to accommodate the fact that there are ‘unknown unknowns’ as Donald Rumsfeld famously said - things that we don’t know that we don’t know and can't.

Ten years ago, I had a very difficult time in my life. Everything that had seemed a certainty, was suddenly at risk. I didn’t know what the next day would bring or even the next email. Before this happened, I had no idea that it would. Gradually, I learnt to weather the shocks. I was fortunate to have a strong network of friends and relatives, but even more important perhaps, was learning to trust that whatever happened, I would find a way of through. There would be people there to help me, if I was prepared to reach out to them. At the worst times, I told myself that something different would happen – it wasn’t always going to stay the same – and that was strangely comforting. The very fact that life is uncertain and does keep changing, became a lifeline. At least this particular form of hell wasn’t going to last forever!

There have been many shocks in 2020. Perhaps more than ever before, we have had to face up to change and uncertainty and have been hugely unsettled. But though life truly is difficult, we are an adaptable species and that has always been a great strength - a path to transcendence perhaps. When something unexpected happens humans are very good at finding a way through, supported by one another – as we have all proved, in our own ways, in taking on the challenge of lockdown. And that’s surely an encouraging boost to our wellbeing!

May I wish you all the very best as we engage with the unknown?

Meg Harper, Head of Counselling