The Age of Uncertainty

Rethinking the meaning of our collective anxiety during election week.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

“We live in the midst of alarms; anxiety beclouds the future; we expect some new disaster with each newspaper we read.”

These words could have been spoken today, especially on this date, November 5, 2020, as we wait for the results of the U.S. presidential election. Amidst acrimony and accusations of fraud and a stolen election, we are waiting and wondering – not only about who will be our next president, but what the fallout of that fact will be, and if it will throw our country in turmoil.

But these words were actually spoken about 160 years ago by Abraham Lincoln, prior to the Civil War, one of the most fractious and devastating periods of American history. Anxiety, then like now, is the word on our lips to explain our divisions, fears, and uncertainties. Indeed, ever since W.H. Auden wrote the epic poem, The Age of Anxiety, in 1947, as the world still reeled from the trauma of the Second World War, many of us have used the word anxiety to sum up our feelings towards our modern, maddening, frenetically changing lives.

Yet, I believe that the real struggle of the 21st century is not one of anxiety, but of uncertainty. While anxiety and uncertainty are closely linked – anxiety is the distress we feel when we anticipate the uncertain future – anxiety naturally ebbs and flows as more information comes in, as truths become apparent, and as we figure out the resources we have to cope. In the context of normal, everyday anxiety, anxiety motivates us, energizes us, helps us marshal our resources to cope with the challenges we face. Hope helps us do the same. It is the flip side of anxiety.

Anxiety is no walk in the park, but without the promise and comforts of eventual certainty, anxiety is rudderless and without a moor. It becomes free-floating with no direction. It starts to spiral out of control. That is what we’re facing now. The 20th century seemed to still have certainty — even if it was in tatters — but certainty sometimes seems in extremely short supply in the 21st century.

In one of his great works, The Sane Society, Erich Fromm argued that human insanity did not reside only within the individual, but in the sanity or insanity of one’s society. A sane society is one in which all citizens can find their own, unique way to create, love, and tell the difference between truth and falsehood. In an insane society, we can no longer count on the certainty of telling the difference between truths and falsehoods in our belief systems, in our values, in our identities, in the rule of law, and in the trustworthiness of our leaders.

When we’re this anxious, we want to see around the uncertain bend and find the answer that’s waiting for us. We crave predictability. When we don’t get it, we may try to dull the pain and just check out. On election night, that was my first line of defense. After things got hairy, I just went to sleep. Or, we might seek information to try to make sense of it all, find some answers. On November 4th, I was well on my way to using that strategy, and got hooked on the 24-hour news, doom scrolling cycle.

Of course, the existentialists have long argued that the world is by its nature unpredictable, and that part of the problem is that we refuse to accept this, while experiencing freedom of choice and free will as both desired and terrifying. Camus, in his classic work, The Stranger, spoke of submitting to the “benign in difference of the universe.” But I’m not an existentialist. I’m a psychologist, and I believe that we need our hope, our stories, and even our myths. That’s why humans are meaning makers, pattern recognizers, and creators. We can’t feel that an indifferent universe is benign. We feel it’s unbearable.

We will soon know the answer to the question of who will be president of the United States. My future readers probably know this now. But even after that uncertainty is over, there will be a pile-on of more uncertainty. That is the one certainty we have. What do we do?

I don’t pretend to really know the answer to that question. Yet, I believe that anxiety can be our ally, and that in the problem lies the solution. If we live in a world that seems perpetually caught between possibility and despair, then we have to choose possibility. If we are caught between hope and anxiety, we have to choose hope. But possibility and hope in our country won’t help if we achieve this at the cost of casting the "other side" as universally evil and twisted. Some almost certainly are, across the spectrum. But if most of the rest of us are simply humans trying to find firm, certain ground upon which we and our children can stand, then we must carefully, very carefully choose the next steps we take to create a sane society, where everyone can find their own, unique way to create, love, and tell the difference between truth and falsehood.

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