Living with uncertainty

Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change. – Mary Shelley

The white water of change

It has been an extraordinary week:

  • The EU referendum in the UK produced a leave result, apparently catching all concerned out including the Leave campaign and then everyone seemed to be asking ‘why?’ and ‘what now?’
  • The two major English political parties went into meltdown
  • There were what appeared to me to be genuine tears in the EU parliament
  • The ugliness of intolerance came boldly out of the shadows where it has always been lurking
  • More lives were lost and blighted with the terrorist attack at Istanbul airport
  • We lost a much loved and respected member of our theatre community with the sad and untimely death of Nicola Thorold. I will miss her
  • I was witness to the first housewarming event at Tara Arts’ new building and felt a great spirit of togetherness that was not afraid to confront some of the wider issues mentioned above
  • I chaired our usual quarterly board meeting at Graeae Theatre Company and we reflected on the role theatre might play in this apparently fragmented country

Just a snapshot of what has felt like living a lifetime in just one week.

From macro to micro the ground has been constantly shifting. Rather than debate the rights or wrongs of the EU outcome, there seems to be more than enough noise around that at the moment and others are probably infinitely more qualified to do that, I am interested in two things now:

  • How do we live in this uncertain world?
  • What, as an individual, can I do given the enormity of much of this?

Certainty and uncertainty

We are, to a certain extent, hardwired to be uncomfortable in the presence of uncertainty. Our ancestral survival instincts trained us as human beings to recognise and respond to fear; to stand and fight or to turn and run in the face of danger. This presents some difficulties in our more fluid global world where uncertainties abound. The boundaries and structures we have become accustomed to, particularly in the west, are melting and morphing and the validity of long term planning is being brought into question.  We are living in what Bauman calls ‘Liquid Times.’

Daniel Burruss talks about the problem of uncertainty being that it keeps us frozen. If we don’t take action we remain frozen. However hard it seems, there are a number of things we can do as individuals to help manage the anxieties of uncertainty:

  1. Watch your ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ they tend to limit your thinking to a view that things must happen in a particular way
  2. Try and be as open as possible, in trying to eliminate or control the uncertainty you can make things feel worse
  3. Create a list of the things you think you can influence and work with those, however small they might feel
  4. Don’t be afraid to trust your instincts and give your intuition space to breathe – take a walk, listen to some music, let your brain rest
  5. However uncertain things feel there are certain cycles that can be identified (research suggests there are over 300 from biological to business), what Daniel Burrus calls linear change. This identifies types of change that don’t go back – i.e. we can be pretty sure once you’ve had a smart phone you won’t go back to a dumb phone. We also know that the next smart phone is likely to be faster, have more storage, a better camera and will be 5G, and so on. While we cannot predict the future we can have some sense of the direction some cycles will take
  6. Get support. It could be colleagues, friends, family, a coach, a therapist, whoever can help you work with your uncertainties

A personal response

The best pieces I have read in recent days have been the blogs that take a more practical perspective and I have shamelessly borrowed the approach to think about my own position (thanks to Chris Gilson and Zoe Williams):

  1. Standing up to intolerance: I am wearing my safety pin with pride – although some have talked about this as a symbol of having to show I am not a racist I don’t see it like that. I travel a lot and want people to know I will give support if needed. I also want to acknowledge my roots as an Irish descendant and those of my partner who is half Spanish #moreincommon
  2. Support: Continuing to support the many organisations I work with for whom diversity, engagement and working with those who have been most directly affected by austerity is a fundamental part of what they do. I want to find ways to do this on a wider basis
  3. Supporting Graeae Theatre Company: I am committed to sharing the extraordinary work we do and proudly being a force for change. There is one project in particular that has been looking at the impact of benefit changes that I would really like to see grow
  4. A progressive political alliance: I want to see the opposition parties come together and work in new ways. I have signed up for the alliance building event on Tuesday and will find other ways to get involved
  5. Holding politicians to account: I will write to my local MP expressing my concerns about what has been unleashed as a result of the referendum and asking what he is doing about it
  6. Listening as well as speaking: I am struck by how much shouting has been going on and a sense that there is a need for more listening to try and understand what has happened (that obviously doesn’t mean condoning intolerance)

The simple act of thinking about what practical steps I can take personally has helped me feel more hopeful. There are things we can all do however small to give us a sense of agency during this period of uncertainty and transition.

If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room. – Anita Roddick