If we were anxious about an upcoming test, and an all-knowing demigod suddenly descended from the heavens, appearing beside us in our study room to say, “You are guaranteed to fail,” how would that make us feel? As we were fretting, losing sleep, biting our nails, if the deity assured us that failure was 100% certain and that there was nothing we could do to change the outcome, would we keep worrying about test, or would we go out and party?

Although the demigod’s news of the future might upset us, and for good reason, it would come with one major benefit: it would release us from worrying about whether we’d pass the test. With failure now revealed as inevitable, we wouldn’t have to ask, “Have I been studying hard enough?” We could stop anticipating the questions we might face on the exam. We could stop hoping we’d get an A, or at least a B. We could stop dreading how disappointed we’d feel if we only got a C. None of those possibilities would matter now.

Sure, anxiety can be insidious and persistent, and it can flourish when there’s little value or purpose in it, but it is not everlasting. Anxiety depends on one critical ingredient without which it cannot survive: uncertainty. As long as our test performance had been uncertain, our anxiety could thrive, but when the demigod took that uncertainty away, our anxiety was starved of fuel. It died.

Of course, the demigod’s promise of failure didn’t cure us of all possible worry, because that promise didn’t remove all uncertainty from our future, not even all uncertainty relating to this particular test. We’ll be getting an F — that’s a “done deal” — but the consequences of that F are still unknown. Will this bad grade mean that we’ll fail the whole class, or could we make up for it with an excellent final project? What if we work really hard on the final project but the teacher isn’t impressed, and we fail the class anyway — will this keep us from graduating? And if we don’t graduate on time, will we lose the job we’re hoping to get?

Once the outcome of the test is foretold, if we still experience an urge to keep worrying, we can worry about the aftermath. We can change our focus from the grade itself — now certain — to the consequences of that grade — still uncertain. Our anxiety can be reborn. It can have a second life.

But each possible consequence of the F allows for the same thought experiment to be repeated. What if the demigod stays by our side to answer any questions about the test’s aftermath, pinning down all the remaining uncertainty? We’re worried about the passing the class now, so we ask the demigod if there’s still hope for that. The demigod says that unfortunately, we’re guaranteed to fail the class too, no matter how much time we spend on the final project. That’s upsetting news, but it means we have no reason to worry about whether we’ll pass the class anymore — we can even skip doing the final project. Given that we’ll fail the class, will we still be able to graduate on time? The demigod says that our graduation will be delayed and there’s nothing we can do about it. Now there’s no reason to worry about whether we’ll graduate on time anymore, but how about the job? The demigod says we won’t get the job. Now we can’t worry about whether we’ll get the job anymore, and so on.

This iterated thought experiment shows that uncertainty can be more stressful — more mentally taxing — than receiving a guarantee that all of the worst possible outcomes will occur. Each time the demigod reveals a bad outcome, it’s disappointing, but strangely calming. The anxiety surrounding that outcome is deflated, and a new unknown — a new source of uncertainty — must be found to keep the anxiety alive. The moral? We find it more stressful to face an uncertain outcome than to face a guaranteed disaster. We find it harder to maintain hope, to behold the possibility that our worst fears might not come true, than to know for sure that they will come true. But why? What is so bad about uncertainty that in some sense, it’s worse than our worst fears?

Imagine that the demigod had not assured us of a failing grade, but had instead offered a weak statistical observation: “Another seventeen hours of study will increase your chances of passing the test by approximately three percent.” How terrible, right? That information would increase our burden because it would confront us with new questions, new choices. Is a three percent improvement worth the necessary effort? How are we going to find seventeen hours to keep studying? What if we have to take that time away from preparing for other exams, compromising our chances elsewhere — is it still worthwhile?

These questions would only add to the ones we’d already be struggling with, if the guarantee of failure had not been provided: Are we studying the right things? Are we accurately assessing our own preparedness, our own depth of knowledge? Are there other actions, beyond studying, that would help our performance? Maybe we should focus on rest, exercise, and nutrition now, which would improve our stamina on the day of the exam? Maybe it would help to set a positive intention, to envision success, to hope really hard, even to pray; or maybe it’s better to forget about the test for now, take a break, and return to the material with a fresh perspective later? Maybe it’ll help to cross our fingers. Maybe it’ll help to wear a magic necklace. Maybe we should get advice from someone who took the class last semester. Maybe… and we’d never do this, of course, but maybe other people in a similar situation would consider cheating — what a terrible idea! But maybe we’re feeling desperate and we need this to go well and we know we’re competing against other people who are planning to cheat — still a nonstarter! Maybe we should flip through the textbook some more, hoping to get lucky and encounter the precise facts we’ll happen to need.

When there’s any uncertainty in a situation, there are often multiple kinds of uncertainty. Uncertainty is rarely simple — it’s rarely confined to one specific question about one unknown outcome, but instead it presents as a knot of co-occurring, mutually reinforcing uncertainties. In our situation, there’s uncertainty about the test result: will we pass or fail? There’s uncertainty about how much control we have over the outcome: how significantly can we improve our chances by studying further? There’s uncertainty about the best way to wield that control: what’s the best study strategy, and how much time and energy should we invest in it? There’s uncertainty about how well we understand ourselves and our own situation: are we overconfident in our preparation, are we underconfident, or are we assessing our knowledge accurately? There’s uncertainty about how we’ll look back on our choices — whether we’ll regret them when their consequences are known. There’s uncertainty about how we’ll react to a bad outcome, whether we’ll blame ourselves, whether we’ll break down, whether we’ll be able to cope at all. There’s uncertainty about how to manage all of these simultaneous uncertainties.

Uncertainty hogs our attention, keeping us in limbo. As we wonder what might happen next, we’re forced to entertain an expanding set of possibilities, to hold each possibility in mind, to explore it, to assess its likelihood, and to imagine its implications — in short, to develop a relationship with it. “My future, if I get an A, looks like this, and I love it; my future, if I get a B, looks like that, and I’m not a fan.” Uncertainty prevents us from moving on to the next step of an unfolding situation with clarity and focus. It denies us the satisfaction of having a solid, stable foundation of facts to build upon. It prevents us from planning one straightforward course of action. It forces us to maintain a collection of alternate plans. That’s a lot of mental work.

What’s worse is how uncertainty arouses and frustrates our desire for control. To say there’s uncertainty in a situation is to say there are multiple possible outcomes. But if there are multiple outcomes, then some outcomes are probably better for us, and others are worse, and there’s likely one we prefer. Wherever there’s uncertainty, there’s something we desire, there’s an outcome we’re hoping for, but we don’t have the power to guarantee it. Wherever there’s uncertainty, we might be able influence the course of events, coaxing our preferred outcome to arise, but if we might be able to influence the course of events, then the burden falls upon us to choose how to wield that influence, and how hard to work at it. Uncertainty means responsibility, it means culpability, it means we need to make decisions which implicate us in the outcome — decisions which could turn out to be wrong, because we made them with incomplete information. It means we’ll face the consequences of our decisions, including disappointment and self-chastisement. Uncertainty makes us players in the situation — active protagonists, co-creators, investors, partial owners — but it forces us to confront the fact that we don’t have as much power as we would like to have: we don’t have the power to defeat the uncertainty, at least not immediately. We don’t have the power to achieve certainty, at least not as soon as we want.

When uncertainty taunts us — rousing our desire for control while confronting us with our lack of the same — we experience anxiety. Anxiety then becomes another uncertain factor that must be grappled with. Will we find a way to manage our anxiety or will it cripple us? Will our nervousness ease up or spiral out of control? What’s the best way to tame it? Maybe we’ll feel calmer if we study more? Maybe we’ll feel calmer if we take a break? Maybe we’ll feel calmer if we think through the worst case scenario and mentally prepare for it? Maybe we’ll feel calmer if we do so some deep breathing, meditation, positive self-talk? Maybe we should go out drinking? Maybe we should analyze why we’re so worried and what it says about us?

If we try to tame our anxiety, and we’re not successful, then we face a new form of powerlessness: our lack of power over our own self. Our lack of control over our own fear. Our inability to achieve the calmer state of mind that we want.

So how can we tame anxiety? If anxiety depends on uncertainty, there must be two ways we can tame it: first, by reducing uncertainty; second, by learning to be more comfortable with uncertainty. That is to say, first, by wielding control over the outcome, pinning it down, making it as certain as we can; second, by accepting our powerlessness to control the outcome. Those two approaches are opposed, and we might oscillate between them, hoping to discover which is best for the situation at hand, or hoping arrive at some useful middle ground. If we take the first approach, there are risks: we could try very hard to wield control, we could spend a lot of time and energy on the endeavor, only to fail — hours, days, or even years later. If we take the second approach, there are risks as well: we could prematurely relinquish control, accepting that “Whatever happens, happens,” and giving up an opportunity, even abdicating a responsibility to make things better, to improve our situation, to effect positive change when the chance was still there.

The serenity prayer goes: “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.” But what kind of wisdom could reliably ascertain the difference between what’s changeable and what’s not? Sometimes that difference is obvious and clear, but sometimes it’s uncertain and must be discovered through trial and error. The only wisdom that could judge this distinction right every time would be omniscience, the ability to look into the future. From our mortal standpoint, the difference might be unknowable, until we’ve travelled far along one path or another. If a person says, “I’m going to fight!”, or if they say “I’m going to surrender” it may take a long time before they learn the results of the approach they picked. No matter how wise they are, they might simply lack the information that would allow them to make anything more than a random bet about whether an outcome is under their control or not. In contemplating a difficult situation, a person might wonder, “Should I fight? Maybe! Should I surrender? Maybe! Should I combine fighting with surrendering? It depends!”

But one thing we can say for sure is that uncertainty is a fact of life and it isn’t going away. So we all stand to benefit from cultivating a better relationship with uncertainty. We’ve seen that our discomfort with uncertainty is bound up with our need for control. The question is: Can we relinquish our need for control without abdicating control? Can we give up our desperation for power without sacrificing the power we have? Can we be leaders, taking charge where there’s an opportunity, without insisting, demanding, depending on always being in charge? Can we prepare for a test with determination and hope, while truly, whole-heartedly accepting that all our effort could be for naught, and that we might fail anyway, and that we don’t get to know the outcome till it happens?

It’s tough to balance fierce determination with calm acceptance, right? The harder we study, the more invested we feel, and the harder it becomes to accept any outcome other than the good grade that we’ve been working so diligently for. Any talk of failure comes to seem like weakness, as though merely acknowledging the possibility of defeat is tantamount to premature surrender. It’s confusing to say “I’m going to fight!” but also “I’m OK with the fact that I am not in full control over whether I win or lose, and that I do not even know precisely how much control I possess.” That doesn’t sound very heroic, does it? A hero is characterized but their determination, their lack of acceptance of defeat (“Vince Aut Morire” — “Win or Die”), and we all want to be heroes.

But perhaps we’d be less anxious if we could combine valor with acceptance, if we could still be committed to “winning,” but if we could maintain this commitment without telling ourselves that we could never tolerate loss under any circumstance. Perhaps we’d be less anxious if we could still fight with our all might, but fight without denying, without ignoring, without concealing the possibility of failure, or treating the mere mention of it as taboo. Perhaps we’d be less anxious if we could still work tirelessly to manifest our vision, but manifest it while accepting that what actually gets manifested is uncertain.

Is heroism compatible with accepting the possibility of defeat? If we see heroism in a larger context where we might need to accept one defeat so we can live to fight another battle, then yes. If being comfortable with defeat, if being prepared for defeat, if being ready for defeat could make us brave, then yes.

A natural place to practice the acceptance of defeat is right at home, when we attempt to “conquer” our own anxiety. When we’re feeling nervous, we surely want to exert some control over that feeling, we surely want to wield some power over our inner condition, we want to be effective in reducing our discomfort — but we might might not get to be. Can we be OK with that?

If we were to truly “accept uncertainty,” it would mean not only accepting that we can’t control specific outcomes in the external world, but also that we can’t control our own inner events. We can’t always control our anxiety. We can’t always control or even predict how we’re going to feel in the next hour, the next day, the next year, and we can’t always know what’s going to make us feel better. Can we be OK with that? Can we be OK with that, while still using the power we have? Can we be OK with that, while not giving up on improving ourselves altogether?

Anyone who has a favorite technique for managing anxiety will tell you how effective it is, as well they should. Deep breathing works wonders. Meditation is transformative. There’s nothing like exercise. There’s nothing like speaking with a good friend. All you need to do is put things in perspective. All you need to do is ease up and don’t take things so seriously. But what happens if you try one of these approaches and it doesn’t give the result you’re hoping for? “I’m doing deep breathing and it should calm me down. I’m trying to think positively and it’s supposed to work. Why isn’t it?” You’ve made an effort to wield control, and you’ve failed, and that feeling of powerlessness makes you even more anxious.

Perhaps a good starting point for any effort at self-calming is to see if you can relinquish the need to control your own anxiety, to see if you can accept some uncertainty about how your anxiety itself will unfold. You can do deep breathing — it might help, it might not. It’s an experiment. You can do meditation — it might help, it might not. It’s an experiment. You can say a positive affirmation — it might help, it might not. It’s an experiment.

Don’t draw conclusions about your anxiety. Don’t say, “The fact that I’m feeling so anxious means… that I’m insecure. Means… that I’m not well prepared. Means… that this test is more important to me than I’m willing to admit. Means… that I’m not doing a good job at mindfulness. Means… that something is wrong with me.” Each of these conclusions only binds a person further into their anxiety.

Whether your anxiety is going to get better or worse or stay the same, see if you can accept that you don’t have full control over that. Yes, there are techniques for addressing anxiety that can be effective, and there are philosophical perspectives that can put it into focus, but they’re not guaranteed. Whether they’re going to work at all, and when you’re going to see results, you don’t know.

If you can be OK with not knowing the course of your own anxiety — whether it gets worse, better, or stays the same — then that acceptance can become the basis for accepting other things in the external world. Instead of needing reassurance that your anxiety is going to get better, if you can accept that you don’t fully control your inner experience, then you can accept that you don’t fully control the external outcomes that you’re anxious about either. That acceptance is a step towards calm.

If our uncertainty about external events leads to the inner phenomenon of anxiety, then the way we respond to the uncertainty of that inner phenomenon — with intolerance or acceptance — can become a model for how we respond to external events as well.

Let’s return to our demigod who calms us down by assuring us of failure. What can we learn from our time with the demigod? It’s typical to seek comfort by asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” But the word “could” emphasizes uncertainty, so the whole question can backfire, making us more anxious than we were before. The demigod offers a twist on this common question, on the common approach of considering the worst case. Instead of asking us to imagine the worst that could happen, the demigod offers certainty. The demigod gives us, right now, a rock-solid guarantee that the worst will happen, and then beckons us to explore how that certainty makes us feel, and what possibilities that certainty opens up for us that had been blocked by our former uncertainty.

How does that certainty make us feel? If the answer is that certainty makes us calm, even if it’s certainty of the worst possible outcome — if the answer is that certainty sets us free to move on with our lives, even if it’s certainty of disaster, then there’s good news here. Our current situation is better than the hypothetical one we’re imagining in the thought experiment with the demigod. Our current situation is better because there’s hope. It’s better because the worst has not happened. The good news is that if we’re in a better situation than the disastrous one, we shouldn’t be consigned to feeling worse than we would feel in that disastrous one, right? It makes no sense that we could only be calm in the face of guaranteed disaster but not calm when we’re better off. The catch is that the uncertainty of our current situation is arousing, and simultaneously frustrating, our desire for control. If we can relinquish that desire without relinquishing our power altogether, if we can accept uncertainty, if we can embrace uncertainty, if we can even love uncertainty, then we will be draining our anxiety’s fuel, just like the demigod did for us. ■

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