Managing Uncertainty

 Last week I went to my local swimming baths for my pre-booked slot alongside about 25 others. On the stroke of 12.00 p.m. we walked at a distance from each other to the poolside already in our swimming togs. We stripped off our outerwear clothing at the poolside down to our swimwear – each at a physically distanced plastic chair. We then showered at alternative showers before slipping into one of the demarcated lanes.

It was strange to see strangers stripped down to their bathers with no masks on. After a couple of lengths, I rediscovered the small pleasure of smiling at one or two of them in that old-fashioned way of acknowledging each other, having seen each other before at the same end. One spoke a few words to me which I replied to about how warm the water was, while facing me bearing their face, lips, mouth, cheeks and eyes. It felt so natural to have our smiles reciprocated followed by making an inane comment or two. Even the over-powering garlic breath, emanating from another chap reminded me of how deprived we have been of ordinariness. To be made aware again of each other while stood in chlorinated Hockney-esque water felt strangely liberating. Almost in touch. But sadly, my newly discovered pool times came to an abrupt halt. With the COVID virus starting to mutate and now spreading like wildfire through the UK, the government has decided to close down all leisure facilities in our neck of the woods.

It also put an end to millions of people’s much looked-forward-to plans for the Christmas Period. In their place, a cocktail of anxiety, confusion and uncertainty had returned. Can we, should we, is it OK if we… bend the rules a little? What if and when will it end? When will we be able to meet up again normally with family, friends and strangers? When will be able to book a holiday, a cruise, hold a big birthday party, a large wedding or other social gathering, that is not restricted by numbers, wearing masks and social distancing? And so on and so on. Everything is up in the air once more; some people resigned and other’s pulling their hair out with worry, wasted effort and disappointment.

Many of us like to be in control of our lives, planning weeks, months and even years ahead, whether it is the next career move, a personal life choice, e.g., getting married, having a family, taking a gap year, what university to go to, when to retire and what to do afterwards. We often spend hours researching, reading up and asking others for advice to help us make the right decision. And then bang! Along came COVID early this year that threw a mighty spanner in the works, for us all. A big effect has been massive uncertainty worldwide – even with the vaccine in our midst now being offered to the first lucky ones.

New uncertainties have come forth. When will I get the vaccine? Is it safe? Will it work? When can I travel unmasked, shake someone’s hand, and hug a colleague again? When will we be able to experience being in a crowd again, like attending a live concert, wandering through a packed shopping mall, or feeling crushed on a university campus during a normal termtime where there are tens of thousands of students and staff thronging through a labyrinth of corridors and courtyards? We simply don’t know….and for many managing this level of uncertainty can be all too much.

To help we can take recourse to the numerous self-help books and blogs around about dealing with uncertainty – including Christine Carter’s (2020) seven tips. Many of these seem sensible and common-sense, such as accepting the situation rather than fighting it, looking after yourself (e.g. getting enough sleep, eating healthy), and giving yourself the odd treat when feeling down. One that struck me, however, as being out of the ordinary was her advice to switch perspective at various times throughout the day. Instead of imagining a frightening and unknown future that we cannot fix or even predict the likely outcomes, she suggests we should “bring our attention to our breath”.

That phrase took me by surprise. What I think she means is: we should try to increase our self-awareness at inconsequential moments, such as asking ourselves, “how are you doing right now?” every time we wash our hands or wait for the kettle to boil. But supposing the answer turns out to be bored, tired, frustrated, listless, etc., then what? Her follow through is: “attending to what is happening within us at any given moment keeps a crappy external reality from determining our inner truth”. That sounds intriguing: turning in on ourselves to block out the depressing news around us. However, I am not sure such a strategy will enable us to feel better about ourselves. Will it make us calmer, more open-minded and less reactive? It might make us worse. I’ll give it a go but, personally, a walk by the sea or laughing my head off listening to a good podcast on my iPhone keeps the bogeymen away.

The other thing I have learned during COVID, is not to get my hopes up any more about us going back to normal any time soon – meaning not to plan anything ambitious in the foreseeable future. A weekly visit to the supermarket is the limit now. I’ll only allow myself to dream again once I know I am definitely booked in for a jab. That seems like it will be a while. Then I will plan a holiday, a work trip and even a city weekend break, reimagining the familiarity of strangers, from bustling queues and being squeezed into planes, trains, pubs, bars, shopping malls, hotel foyers, waiting rooms, reception areas, etc. and being able to smile and sometimes laugh at the person/s next to me without a mask on. In the meantime, it is back to a life of endless zoom meetings among familiar faces. Speaking of which…

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