Tolerating Uncertainty

The business of thinking is like the veil of Penelope: it undoes every morning what it had finished the night before.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 166

I’m an anxious sort of person.

That’s a glib way of saying that I have an anxiety disorder.  I’m afraid a lot of the time.  I have practical fears, like heights and driving and cardiovascular disease.  I have existential fears, like global warming and the descent of American society into fascism.  And I have social fears, like public speaking and calling people on the phone and putting myself out there when I want something or someone.

Every single person feels anxiety sometimes.  What makes it a disorder is that it interferes with your life.  My disorder is not a bad one – anxiety is ever-present in my life but I largely work around it.  I hate flying and driving, for instance.  If I could take the train everywhere I would, but I can’t, so I fly and I drive and my nervous system freaks out but I’m okay.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m just anxious for no damn reason, and it lasts all day, or all week, and there’s nothing I can do.  And that’s hard but it’s also reassuring in its own way.  It’s a reminder that anxiety often can’t be reasoned with.  At a certain point, all you can do is acknowledge what’s happening.  “My nervous system is freaking out, but I’m okay.”

What I’m trying to say here is that my relationship to anxiety is very personal. I think that’s true for most people. You can reason about fear but there’s a part of it that’s inescapably embodied. And uncertainty exacerbates fear.  I’d rather get a single painful shock I knew was coming than sit around waiting for a shock that might come.  It’s less terrifying to ask out a person you know will say no than someone who might say no.  So my relationship to uncertainty is very personal too.  To tolerate uncertainty is not just an intellectual choice or an emotional choice, but a physical choice.

The Romantic poet John Keats in 1817 coined the term negative capability:

[At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.

Part of why negative capability is so rare and difficult to cultivate is because uncertainty provokes for so many of us a physical fear.  So we try to escape the fear by leaving the situation, or reasoning ourselves out of it, or blaming something else for the fear, or trying to grit our way through it.  Negative capability is the decision to sit with that fear, to say, “I’m afraid, but I’m okay”.  And when you approach uncertainty with that kind of acceptance, it lets you view the world – and the uncertain issue or object – in a different way.

This way of approaching the world is not something Keats invented, of course.  From Hannah Arendt:

It is in [thinking’s] nature to undo, unfreeze as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought – words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines), whose “weaknesses” and inflexibility Plato denounces so splendidly in the Seventh Letter.  The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics.  These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 177

In other words, Socrates sought to build a community of people with negative capability, people who could hold perplexities in their hands.

(Brief aside: I can’t help bringing up one of my favorite characters, Chidi Anagonye, again.  Chidi is a moral philosopher with severe anxiety and essentially zero negative capability, who I think would benefit enormously from having Socrates as a mentor.  Maybe I will write fanfiction about this.)

Negative capability is vital in so many endeavors:

It’s vital in scientific research, since you must tolerate uncertainty about how the world works and whether the hypotheses and theories you’re relying on are true.

It’s vital in technological innovation, since you must tolerate uncertainty about whether your inventions will work and what impact they’ll have on the world.

It’s vital in political coalition-building, since you must tolerate uncertainty about how to compromise and whose perspectives to favor.

And of course it’s vital in philosophy and art, as Socrates and John Keats would agree.

Some people argue that an inability to tolerate uncertainty predisposes people to authoritarianism and fascism.  Others link it to conservatism:

[R]ather than make an unvarnished demand for freedom to oppress he is more apt to present himself as the defender of certain values. It is not in his own name that he is fighting, but rather in the name of civilization, of institutions, of monuments, and of virtues which realize objectively the situation which he intends to maintain; he declares that all these things are beautiful and good in themselves; he defends a past which has assumed the icy dignity of being against an uncertain future whose values have not yet been won; this is what is well expressed by the label “conservative.”

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 39.

There has not been very much research on the links between uncertainty tolerance and authoritarianism or conservatism.  There has not been much research on uncertainty tolerance as a whole.

These are, fittingly, subjects for which we must tolerate a great deal of uncertainty.  So let us do as Socrates would do, and share our perplexities with each other.

4 Replies to “Tolerating Uncertainty”

  1. I liked this post. Over time, I find that a lack of uncertainty tolerance makes it harder for good conversations to flourish — sitting with ambiguity without immediately *needing* to force a resolution or a perceived resolution is a capability I would like to have more of, and I wish more people had.

  2. Hi Sumana! Thanks for being the first non-spam comment on this blog. 🙂

    I’m in the middle of writing a follow up post about it, but: I think tolerating uncertainty requires a lot of trust. Internally, it requires trusting yourself to be able to get through whatever the future throws at you without having everything figured out and pinned down. Interpersonally, it requires trusting that whoever you’re conversing with isn’t going to be upset with you because you don’t have all the answers.

    It can be a lot of work to build that kind of trust, in both cases. But on the bright side, I think this kind of trust is contagious. A great, nourishing, uncertain, trust-filled conversation doesn’t just benefit the two (or three, etc) immediate conversants, but gives them the confidence to pursue similar conversations in the future.

    I wonder if there are common recurring phrases that are used to shut down uncertainty and exploration of ambiguity in conversations, that we could keep an eye out for. I think sometimes “I don’t know” is used in this way – not as a jumping off point for further exploration but as a way of saying, let’s steer away from this acknowledged area of uncertainty.

      1. I did! I love that essay:

        “When human beings in Shakespeare’s plays reach irritably after fact and reason in their dealings with one another, they break, or break the world. Certain truths and chains of logic bind souls, and drive people mad. There is no room for slack or play within them. Hamlet’s hunger for certainty drives him to the edge of suicide; Lear’s demand that his daughters prove their love undoes his kingdom. The isolated mind uses all its tools and power to protect and justify itself—but so long as its judgment is driven by suspicion and fear, it will never be able to diagnose its own flaws.”

        And later:

        But as a man of systems and facts, once he was infected with distrust he could not convince himself to trust again. Every use of logic justified the wound in his heart. The world became a conspiracy against him.

        if you require perfect certainty to live in harmony with others then you will always be at odds with the world. We have to be willing to be wrong about each other in order to occasionally be right. I saw on Twitter there was a woman who had a goal of getting 100 rejection letters, because it meant she was taking risks with her writing. Perhaps I should have a goal of feeling disappointed with 100 people, as a sign I am taking risks with my trust.

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