“This I ever held worse that all certitude, To know not what the worst ahead might be.” 1
Algernon Charles Swinburne
In my role at the University of Westminster, as one of the chaplains working in the Interfaith Advice team, uncertainty and ambiguity have been dominant themes in my conversations with others over the last three months. This morning I began a project to collect quotes on how to relate with uncertainty, with an intention to contribute something from the spiritual perspective to the University of Westminster community experience. When I found this quote above by Swinburne the first thing that I did – after thinking ‘hmm, yes, but not sure about that attitude’ – was to try to verify it online. Perhaps it speaks volumes that the first result on the search, despite having no connection to the quote, was New Normal, New Thinking: Life Post COVID-19, an article on Pharmafield, which describes itself as ‘the must-read for field sales teams’ in the Pharmaceutical industry.
The article contains a breakdown of VUCA, an American Army analysis of battlegrounds: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. It reminded me of an experience in the early days of the virus, naively thinking that as COVID-19 is affecting all of humanity we might be able to leave behind the vocabulary of war and combat. The writer uses the VUCA framework to articulate a response to the pandemic environment. Under uncertainty, he writes:
“Conventional old school wisdom: Counteract uncertainty with certainty.
Post COVID-19 new thinking: Many people like things to be settled, organised and placed into a comfortable routine. Others thrive on uncertainty and love the opportunities it brings. Wherever you sit on this continuum you will need to embrace rather than fight the uncertainty. Think about using this uncertainty to consider what could be possible in the new normal.” 2
When I began looking for material on how to work with uncertainty I was intending to find spiritual sources, certainly not anticipating that a Pharma industry article would hold interest. Perhaps the breakdown of stability across the board is opening new tech ground to old seeds of wisdom. In today’s world it feels imperative that I learn to find sustenance where I can and not just where I have found it before; whether that is sustenance in knowledge, spirituality or companionship (when even a friendly exchange with a delivery worker can brighten a day). Can I afford to be uncertain about how to approach uncertainty?
This theme of nourishment and scarcity has led me to connect with the more post-apocalyptic edge of current thinking (and dreaming). I am daydreaming about how early humans would have to learn what was edible or drinkable in their environment by trial and error. Knowledge of what was fit for consumption could be communicated down the generations; the distinction between hemlock (poison) and wild carrot (food) for instance. In this current moment we cannot sensorially detect the threat, which is airborne, or resting on a surface, whilst also affecting social behaviours. The feedback for a mis-step could be fatal, for us, for the other, or for both and many others. We must learn on the spot, again and again, never receiving negative confirmation that avoiding this or that form of contact contributed to lowering transmission rates or just to our own loneliness and anxiety. Like Alice in Wonderland, we might sometimes wonder why there is no jam today,
“I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the Queen said. “Two pence a week, and jam every other day.”
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire me – and I don’t care for jam.”
“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any to-day, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!” 3
As methods of global communication have evolved and expanded we find our dopamine boosts being regulated and mediated online, embedded within information about our personal and social existence. We look fondly at photos of jam yesterday, and dream up our meals of jam tomorrow, but is it ever jam today? These methods of dissemination seem to prey on our pre-historic proclivities like the sudden mass availability of sugar in modern diets, exploiting our tendencies to gorge ourselves on energy sources that would have previously been available far more rarely.
Today I woke up and checked various social media on my phone. What is the hunger I am trying to fill? A simple answer would be a hug, or to hold the hand of another. During the rare hugs I have experienced during lockdown I have certainly felt a wish to fully inhabit the moment, somewhat driven and amplified by the fear of what Algernon Charles Swinburne describes: not knowing ‘what the worst ahead might be.’ Unlike the forms of wild carrot and hemlock, the dimensions of the viral and informational risks we encounter evolve and shapeshift rapidly, resisting the handing down between generations.
I think also about the post-truth environment. We are learning, too slowly, that we must verify information before passing it on or else risk solidifying the bubbles (our image of reality) into cocoons within which we may end up radically and even unconsciously shielded from alternative understandings (and fresh air). We may even build statues to these versions of reality, teach our children to inhabit these narratives and consciously or unconsciously dismiss information which shines a different, uncomfortable light. There is an ethical obligation to be willing to meet uncertainty, and our own discomfort, particularly when our privilege might afford us more chance to temporarily escape it.
This drive to maximise our intake and reserves can lead to extreme forms of hoarding and entrenching. At our worst we privilege the constant growth of our own consumption over the barest acknowledgement of the humanity of others. At the University of Westminster we may now feel more keenly the obligation to better examine our institution’s roots, tracing the brick and mortar wealth to sugar plantations in Demerara which were run on the blood of enslaved peoples. In terms of Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity, are those of us in positions of greater privilege (like the White Queen of Wonderland) still offering jam tomorrow when even the sugar in that jam has been cultivated on stolen ground by enslaved people?
Could we choose to make uncertainty our jam today? It is not sweet, but it can nourish us. During the nine months I spent living as a monastic at Gampo Abbey I studied with Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and author. In her article Three Methods for Working with Chaos, Pema outlines a pattern of behaviour that is very familiar to me: when experiencing the discomfort of not being certain of my territory I act out, either directing my emotions or blame at someone else or behaving aggressively towards myself. 4
One of the distinct features of Buddhist philosophy is an emphasis on impermanence, anicca in Sanskrit. In other words, the understanding that all things are subject to change. She suggests that the next time we experience our impermanence, realising that we do not possess any definite ground which will remain secure, ‘don’t consider it an obstacle. Consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. We have no ground to stand on, and at the same time it could soften us and inspire us.’ The article gives various suggestions about how to bring this attitude into the practice of everyday life. Relevant to this idea of jam today is the second of the three methods: ‘using poison as medicine’. She suggests that we might ‘use difficult situations—poison—as fuel for waking up.’
Pema proposes that we can do this by choosing to lean in to our discomfort. I interpret that this could be a willingness to feel the raw quality of our loneliness sometimes, rather than to look for endless distraction on a screen. It could be a willingness to look at our privilege, or to acknowledge the suffering of others whom we might prefer to not see at all. It might just be allowing some silence to open up during a video call. Pema suggests that in the moment of willingness to be present with what we might usually try to avoid, the experiences we take in can become ‘seeds of compassion and openness.’
As a University community, perhaps we can also keep some open space by allowing for uncertainty in the way we return to working on campus. I have used public transport twice in the last couple of weeks, and in both instances, it felt like I had never been away. In my experience some old habitual patterns of reactive behaviour (such as rushing to a closing door) which may feel long gone can quickly re-establish themselves, so I am also looking to set definite intentions to change. The first obstacle to work with will be my fear (and laziness) regarding cycling. It does feel like it’s time to get a bicycle and lean in to the uncertainty of new terrain.
By David Morris
If you would be interested to join in conversations on themes such as this, whether from a faith-based, spiritual, or non-religious perspective, the Interfaith team are in the early stages of creating a Faith and Spirituality Network for staff and students at Westminster. To be informed of or involved in developments, contact the team on email@example.com
1 http://www.maxioms.com/maxiom/60021 last accessed 25/06/20
2 https://pharmafield.co.uk/opinion/new-normal-new-thinking/ last accessed 25/06/20
3 https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/time/tomorrow-and-yesterday last accessed 25/06/20
4 https://www.lionsroar.com/pema-chodrons-three-methods-for-working-with-chaos/ last accessed 25/06/20