Uncertainty and change

Uncertainty and change

(Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash)

A year of changes

This year has been one of major change. The sheer amount of outlandish things that left the kitchen of providence ruined a lot of appetites, but made for some excellent servings of memes.

And some, me included, wonder if the year is done with its menu of  surprises.

Here's a small sample of some of the crazy shit that happened;

2020: Very bad, would not recommend.
2020: 1 star. Very bad, would not recommend

This year proved that uncertainty is always around, ready to pounce. With this post, I want to explore uncertainty and how it affects our experience of life.

Why are we always surprised by uncertainty and change? Why do we hope for some things to change and expect others to never change at all. Why do we inflict pain on ourselves and others by identifying with things and assuming them to be permanent truths when they are, in fact, neither?

COVID

An obvious place to start would be an exploration of this little pandemic we're all experiencing. COVID19 has rolled out quite a lot of turbulence over our global society.

Mask-wearing is no longer something that only a select few Asian countries do. Last year this time, in most places in the world, you would have been regarded with suspicion if you entered public spaces with half your face deliberately hidden.

Security would have surely tailed you in the malls, and young mothers with infants would have scampered out of your way in the dairy isle. But now, practically everywhere, it's legally mandated that you peer at strangers over a piece of cloth in public, like a bandit or dentist.

Working remotely has also become commonplace, where it had previously been something only the weird and vagabond do. I myself now perform my duties this way for a company that previously did not even consider it a remote possibility.

The lockdown came and taught us a lot of things. Some of it good, like that remote work is possible, realistic, and even, perhaps, more productive. That nature can recover quite quickly, if we but gave her a chance.

But we also learned that governments could and would force everyone to stay at home, stop working, and stop interacting with friends and family. They could and would force conditions that threatened to kill entire industries and a scary amount of companies and jobs. And we learned that populations, as a whole, will simply comply and go along with these directions.

And COVID is likely not done yet, and I'm not even referring to a second wave. Quite a lot of people I've spoken with reckon that most of the economic and societal fallout due from even the first one is still yet to come. Like electricity in the air, everyone can feel a storm is brewing.

COVID has was pretty effective in its disruption of whole societies and cultures in an instant. But there are other more mundane ways uncertainty and change expresses itself if our lives, whether we like it or not.

Moving can be quite disruptive

For instance, I moved to a new residence recently. It was sudden and unexpected, and revealed exactly how much I personally rely on routine and the familiar to feel relaxed and in control of my life.

Having to change where you call home and mentally adjust who you consider your community can be quite disruptive. It's like it dislodges little pieces of your identity that you didn't consider before.

What you like, dislike or get used to about your everyday life are like pieces of Lego blocks, and these little conceptualisations eventually assemble themselves into what you consider yourself. They click together into a tapestry of assumed identity and you take them to be statements of who you are. "I am someone who gets up and exercises at 5am", "I am Californian", "I like this brand of coffee", "I listen to that podcast on my commute", "I am happy when it rains in the afternoon".

These are little behavioural heuristics we adopt to help smooth out and automate decision-making in our daily lives, creating concealed yet interlinked chains of dependencies that we experience as a sense of control and consistency. They are webs of reassurance. They make us feel that things are as they should be, we can relax.

This is how they catch and trap us.

Out of ignorance we weave together an assumed reality and take it for a dependable Truth.

When you move, a portion of that goes out of the window. You'd be surprised how many of those little circumstantial components you unconsciously adopted as part of your identity gets shaken loose when you just move your domicile. It's can be a little bit like going to a foreign country and experiencing severe culture shock. Your very identity is now suddenly on shaky ground and full of holes.

You need to actually think about things again that, just a day before, were so certain and True that they were not even worth a second of reflection.

I now need to deal with mosquitos all hours of the day where this wasn't an issue I needed to contend with last week. Then I was a peace loving being, in harmony with nature. Now I can be an annoyed, angry person that wants to deal out death with slaps of spite. That's extra mental energy and patience I'm having to expend, and it forms into internal conflict.

Cumulatively these form daily drips of discomfort. And discomfort can eventually build up into pain and suffering.

But let's get back to larger scale changes again. What if the stability of our entire society and community crumbles?

Worlds that were eternal but now aren't

Think about the world. Who are the major powers, what conclusions can you draw about how things will likely play out in the future, and what is your own community's place is in this world?

These are assumptions that you use to make long-term decisions to try and ensure the safety and happiness of your self, your family, and community.

Now take those assumptions, crumble then up and throw the lot in the trash, because as I shall explain, nothing in the world is for sure, not even the world order as you know it.

History is rife with examples of the seemingly invulnerable superpowers and empires crumbling into dust in mere decades, if not faster. Recent examples include Yugoslavia and the USSR. I have friend who personally lived through the disintegration and disappearance of the former. In the 60s and 70s, the complete collapse of the latter in a mere 30 years would have seemed very, very unlikely.

What happened to the British Empire? The Austria-Hungary Empire, the Ottoman Empire? All of these were major, world-shaking powers only a lifetime or so ago.

But let's go back a bit further and look at societies that must have felt to be even more eternal to their citizens.

Would it have been conceivable to the Aztec's Montezuma, that the strange-looking European Hernán Cortés and his odd band of men would in 8 months be able to lay utter waste to an almost 180 year old empire? That their entire culture, religion and history would be swept away in what must have felt like an instant torrent of blood, tears and immeasurable misery.

And it wasn't just them, the Spanish invasion of the New World would eventually destroy the entire way of life and culture of many people that had first ventured into the Americas 20K+ years ago.

In the old world, more examples; Assyria lasted 756 years as one of the most powerful superpowers in its region. That is a long-ass time. How could it end? What did it feel like for citizens when Assyria fell?

The Roman empire, if you include Byzantium, lasted just under 1500 years! Can you even comprehend that? Can you imagine living in that society and someone suggested that, one day, the Roman Empire would be no more. No Roman citizen would have believed such nonsense. It would have been inconceivable.

Even more so Sumer, which existed for 2000 years before it was in ruins. Egypt was a de facto world power of the 'known' world for 30 centuries. Where are they now?

And take my word for it, the current batch of powerful and "invincible" countries will all be gone one day too. Current incarnations of the US, China, Germany, Russia - all of them will one day be no more, and replaced with other, different societies.

Consider your own country. If you strongly identify with your nation and your culture, and feel particularly nationalistic, think about what it could mean if one day your country would be no more too.

And consider that your decedents who would be around then would also be very proud to belong to whatever community would have come into existence then. They would be proud to be something completely different to that that which you now hold so dear. They will be part of another nation, another people. They would be like foreigners, your children's children's children.

You might feel particularly proud and protective of your culture and religion, but consider that your ancestors would possibly be aghast that you, their kin, their very bloodline, now cling to and defend a religion and culture that awful, merciless enemies came and forced unto them, when they came and conquered their lands and destroyed their communities. This happened countless times throughout history and almost certainly happened to your own family if you go back far enough.

I'm writing this in Roman characters, living in a society who's laws were built on Roman law, and who's very fabric is structured around things invented by the Romans. But my ancestors were mostly from the barbarians up in northern Europe, who got conquered, decimated, and sold into slavery by the Romans.

What would they think of me now, this bastardised Roman-Germanic decedent of theirs, living in a far-off land, with a culture, language, values and word view so foreign to theirs? Is this what they wanted for the family they fought and suffered for so much?

The uncertainty of ideas

Our world is full of idealogical battles too, where adherents are CERTAIN that they are right and others are wrong. Many consider their beliefs and opinions indisputable truths; foolproof, air-tight, obvious and universal. But is this really the case?

All the political rage in the West at the moment, is the seeming battle between the liberal and conservative political ways of thought.

However, in my own lifetime I've seen the definition and characteristics of what is considered liberal and conservative thought change like fickle fashions, never mind how these concepts morphed over decades and centuries before. Even more-so between different countries and regions. Consider also that at one point, if you go back far enough, these ideas did not even exist at all.

The same can be said for other currently explosive topics of division - the culture wars, the gender wars, communism VS capitalism, Apple VS Android. All of these ideas where at one point of time invented, and did not exist before then.

These things are real, and have real world consequences, but they are also not real or substantial, yet people are sometimes willing to fight with and destroy the lives of those who do not agree with their Obvious and True ideals.

Even something that feels as obvious and solid as our concepts of morality are pliable and subject to cultural conditioning. What is considered good and right now and here was not necessarily good or right back then and there.

But the uncertainty of ideas goes even deeper than that. Consider something as elementary and obvious as the colour blue.

It is theorised that the perception of blue, as an identifiable colour by most people, is a relatively modern development.

Let that sink in for a minute. The concept and perception of the colour blue might be a recent phenomenon that didn't exist for most of human history.

Our world and the concepts we rely on might are all uncertain. Even the ocean will one day not exist, and after that the Earth will be gone too. How do we cope with this?

Reflections on change

I sometimes reflect on how my own perceived level of happiness is simply the result of my minds' comparison of the events in my life against my own hopes and fears.

I hope for certain things to happen, and if they do, I get a tidy dopamine hit. If they don't, a smack of disappointment. Or the inverse - I hope something wouldn't happen, and when it does, there comes unhappiness.

This dynamic can also play out in other unexpected ways. When something you hoped for happens, but then turns around and dishes out pain and disappointment instead, it can be particularly devastating.

Think back on such turns of fortune in your own life or those you know; that exciting job you wanted that turned out to be a nightmare. That motorcycle you so desired but that deprived you of the ability to walk. Or the other way round, perhaps when that desirable partner rejected you, but was eventually revealed to be an absolute monster in hindsight. Bullet dodged.

We mostly seem to base our level of happiness on the result of vast, intricate sets of personal expectations compared to the experience of actual events. An endless run of functions processing our hopes and dreads with experiences of likes and dislikes.

Which brings us back to that which I brought up earlier - our "identity". Identities tend to be constructed from those endless calculations of the happiness function, crystallising together in higher-order functions to speed up the processing of happiness and suffering even more. And because they are built on the abstract generalisations of so many random experiences of hopes and dreads - my god, what a mess those can lead us into.

Our minds have evolved to construct identities for a reason; they are excellent tools of survival. They can unite small groups, and enforce uniform behaviour to amplify group efforts.

But in larger, more complex societies they can do the opposite. They can be used to create warring tribes, foster unrealistic, simplistic expectations, lead to idealisation and hero worship of those we consider to be like us and demonisation of the other, and lead to deep, but mistaken, perceptions of unfairness or insult.

Any conflicts between what happens in reality compared to what our identities expect, can be rationalised away as flukes, mistakes or exceptions. Because it can feel like if you cannot trust in your identity, what you conceive to be you and true, what can you depend on? They have been carefully and diligently cultivated by yourself over many years, like sand mandalas.

Identities are comforting because they can help us navigate the world and, can help us avoid and assign blame in our own minds. But eventually reality has a way of washing away these self-created delusions.

Think of all the identities people throughout history might have clung on to that might have unraveled at some later point. "My family will always stick together", "I am the fastest kid in the school",  "I am rich and attractive", "I am young", "I am a good person", "I am important and people want my attention". "I am free."

All are illusions, transient, temporary and conditional on other circumstances. Is it wise to protectively drape them around ourselves and emotionally and psychologically depend on them to be True and Absolute?

We seldom realise that they are merely amalgamations of conventions, stereotypes conditioned by blind, random chance.

Life as a game

"Great, Rik, well where does that leave me?". I don't know. A lot of fridge-magnet cliches come to mind though; "Stop giving a fuck", "Life is a journey", "Don't take life too seriously, you'll never get out of it alive", "The gods laugh at our plans", "Don't look back, you're not going that way".

I suppose it comes down to not taking ourselves, our opinions, identities or wants too seriously. We could do well to dial back self-righteousness, judgements, attempts to control others and reinforcing selfish behaviour. We should also realise that reality doesn't particularly care about our ideas of "fairness","shoulds" and "musts".

The Golden Rule comes to mind - treat others the way you want to be treated.

Sometimes I think it useful to try and view life as a video game. I try to play down my fears and hopes as mere arbitrary aspects of some vast cosmic plot. It helps to try keep distance between "me" - that which perceives and plays the game - and the events and plot-lines that unfold in the plot of the game.

But perhaps that's to simplistic - games have a defined story arch and life is way more complex than that.

But on the other hand, if a story is being conjured up in my mind in response to an impossibly complex world, perhaps a game analogy is not that bad, if it helps lessen suffering.

Don't take your life personally

Two traditions have evolved to wrestle with this particular aspect of existence; Buddhism and Stoicism.

I won't cover them in particular detail, but will merely list some quotes from both traditions that I feel appropriate to sign off this post.

Buddhism

Luang Por Sumedho, a US born Buddhist monk wrote a book with a very appropriate title for this article; Don't take your life personally. That is such a perfect summation of the situation.

Another Buddhist had something similar to say;

“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.” — Chögyam Trungpa

Stoicism

"You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength."―Marcus Aurelius

"Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life."—Seneca

This, too, shall pass.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments or suggestions, follow and contact me on Twitter @RikNieu

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