By Pamela Leland, PhD, Executive Director
If nothing else, the recent presidential election reminded us that life is uncertain. We were reminded that what we think or hope will happen, may not! The election was (and is) a lesson that the very nature of life is change.
Some of us already know this intimately. We face chronic or incurable illnesses. We find ourselves unemployed. We face divorce, car accidents, unexpected health crises or sudden death. When these things happen – whether to us or those we care about – we are reminded that control is an illusion. Life is uncertain.
Older adults have learned this lesson after decades of life experience. This is part of the wisdom of our Elders. Unfortunately, and in spite of this knowledge, older adults can fall into the same thought patterns of stress and anxiety when faced with uncertainty and change. Heightened stress levels can have a variety of significant negative health impacts including heart disease and death.
The irony is that uncertainty and change provide opportunities to become our better – and stronger – selves. We know that adversity brings out heroes. We have witnessed that hard times bring out kindness, compassion and generosity.
So rather than trying to eliminate uncertainty and change – or pretend it doesn’t exist – maybe we should consider the benefits of uncertainty. Maybe we can lean into uncertainty.
The benefits of leaning into uncertainty include:
Learning to live in the present moment. To savor what is right in front of us and not be distracted by all of the other noise. Acknowledging the uncertainty of the future invites us to appreciate today.
Cultivating gratitude and wonder and mystery. This is more than simply seeing the glass as half full. This is an intention to recognize all that is good and beautiful in the mess and chaos that may surround us.
Cultivating gratitude is an intention. It is welcoming the rain because it brings spring flowers. It is welcoming the fires that bring new life to our forests. It is remembering that we learn and grow through trials … and therefore, can see the unexpected benefits that arise in suffering.
Building our skills in reframing, planning and creativity. Rather than falling into stress and anxiety, a better response to uncertainty is to be prepared for what might happen. What is the worst case scenario? If we can acknowledge what might happen, we can better prepare ourselves. We can push ourselves to think outside the box, experiment and risk. For example, if we are afraid of falling and not being found quickly, we can schedule a daily phone call with a friend or family member. If we are afraid we won’t have enough money, we can start by saving $5 a week now. If we are afraid of being alone, we can cultivate relationships with others and build a network of care and support.
Turning negative energy into positive motivation. Optimism is a choice. It is an intention we can adopt. We can change negative thought patterns and build new neural pathways of positivity and optimism. This does take time and discipline! Yet if we practice optimism, we can learn to face uncertainty with less stress and anxiety and more of a sense of growth and possibilities.
Fully embracing uncertainty may be too much to expect of ourselves. We can, however, see the possibilities that uncertainty brings. We can choose to face uncertainty with optimism. We can join with others to face uncertainty with hope and shared commitment. We can lean into uncertainty knowing that we are a part of families and a community who will care for another through the unexpected situations and changes that will, most certainly, come.