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How A Stoic Accepts Future Uncertainty

For me, the most difficult thing about future events is the shadow they can cast over the intervening days that lead up to them.

Awareness of this state of affairs is, however, strangely comforting at the same time – that the most difficult thing about future events isn’t even the events themselves. Given I’ve made it this far, all past evidence suggests I’ll have what it takes to cope when they arrive.

But that thought doesn’t always dispense with the anxious foreboding that has been learned and reinforced over many years.

I don’t know how it began but it’s almost a reflex reaction now for me to emotionally deflate when a plan is made or an invitation is received. Even perfectly harmless events can draw my vague suspicion. Thankfully, as I have come to embrace philosophy and attempt to live my own interpretation of an examined life, I have been better able to examine these reactions and even tame them with reason and rationality.

Embracing Uncertainty

In his excellent book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman defines worry as “the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again – as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster.” It’s a simple enough point, but a powerful one: our anxiety in the present comes from a desire for certainty about the future.

And yet no matter how hard we try, certainty about the future is one thing we can never have. No matter how concrete we think our plans are, some unexpected circumstance beyond our control can come and drill them to pieces.

Reading Burkeman’s words about worry gave me a new perspective on Seneca’s about living. “The whole future lies in uncertainty,” wrote the Stoic philosopher in On the Shortness of Life. “Live immediately.” His sentiment was one of urgency – that we should stop postponing those things that will give our life meaning or Fate may be sufficiently tempted to decide that we never get to do them.

The additional meaning I now take from Seneca’s line is that this uncertainty about the future is to be embraced: the very knowledge of its limitation, that it’s impossible to turn it into certainty (at least until it has actually happened, by which point it becomes the past), frees us from the burden of constantly trying to.

So how does this contribute in a practical way to a more rational response when worry about a future event starts to kick in? Here is a short sequence of thoughts and actions I find helpful when progressed through to completion.

1. Accept that chasing future certainty is futile

The struggle for certainty,” writes Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks. “Is an intrinsically hopeless one – which means you have permission to stop engaging in it.” Knowing our desire for reassurance about a time that hasn’t arrived yet will never be satisfied is a freeing fact to accept. If I can never know that things will turn out exactly as I want them to, why should I voluntarily add that burden of worry to my life?

2. Plan for the future but don’t obsess

Acceptance in the first instance doesn’t mean a resigned slump into passivity. It doesn’t mean we can’t actively respond; the acceptance just gives us a much stronger base from which to do so. We can turn our vague worry into a specific imagined outcome and make prudent plans to prevent it happening. Feeling prepared provides a level of security in the present that we can’t get from the future.

3. Imagine the worst case scenario if your plans fail

To prevent your planning becoming a source of worry in itself, draw a line under it with a final act: imagine the worst case scenario if it fails. This negative visualisation exercise diminishes the sting of an unwanted outcome simply through sheer expectation. And knowing you have already considered it’s future possibility helps remove it’s shadow from the present.

One of the most beautiful descriptions of this exercise I’ve ever heard is by John O’Donohue in his talk, Love is the only Antidote to Fear. You can read his words below, but I would encourage you to also listen to them here to appreciate his delivery.

“Fear draws great strength from time. You know yourself that on a Monday morning if you wake up and you realise that on the next Friday that you have something horrible waiting for you – some kind of encounter, some kind of news, or a meeting with somebody that you don’t want but that you have to have – the chances are that your days on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday will be totally shadowed by the threat of Friday, and you waste four lovely days because the fear of what’s waiting for you robs you of the beauty of the days that you have.

Something that I try to do myself when I’m afraid is to sit myself down, and on an empty chair opposite me I’d imagine the thing (or person or situation or whatever) that I was afraid of. Then I’d say to myself, “Let’s do it now. Instead of being miserable about it, let’s have a blast at it.” And then I would imagine, I’d say to myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen in this situation?” And I’d think about it until I realise what the worst thing was and then I would force myself to imagine all the elements of the worst aspect of it. And then by the time the situation actually arrives, it isn’t too bad at all. You’ll be incredibly relieved cause it’s never as bad as you thought!”

4. Remember you are capable of coping with what the future will bring

Ingrained as it is, my own worry about the future likely comes from past negative experiences. Perhaps events I looked forward to as a child were routinely disappointing or perhaps I have always felt under pressure to produce certain future outcomes (e.g. exam results, job interview success).

But what if I focus on the positive from the past?

The very fact that I have made it to this present moment means I have coped at least adequately with all those past events that once held future dread for me. It’s reasonable then to conclude that I may just have what it takes to treat what’s ahead with less suspicion, to sufficiently plan for it, and, when the time comes, meet it without fear.