Three months ago, none of us saw this coming.
We were all going about our business, revelling in our new year’s resolutions, preparing for the year ahead as usual. For myself, 2020 included two relatively notable events that were out of the ordinary: the Olympic Games and my wedding.
Then we start hearing about the virus. It’s spreading in China. Now Italy has it. The first case in London. Northern Italy has locked down. Paris is completely shut. American travel bans. Where did all the toilet paper go? And then here we are; lockdown. Three months ago very few people would have predicted where we are. I’m sick of hearing the word ‘unprecedented’ on the news, but I suppose there is no other way to describe it; never done or known before.
The reason I reflect on this is that my anxiety about the situation has been teetering around the ‘quite unbearable’ mark for the last couple of weeks.
Upon some introspection, it’s clear that this anxiety is revolving around the uncertainty being caused by this disease. I’ve gone from having my entire year planned out perfectly, to having that plan thrown aside and replaced with absolute chaos:
Are we training this week? Am I going to get sick? Will there be any pro-league games? How many people are going to die? Is the Olympics getting cancelled? Is my wedding going to happen? How am I going to wipe my arse?
All these questions have been ricocheting around my skull for the last week, with very little room for anything else and leaving a rather irritable human behind the wheel. The truth is that none of these questions have answers. At least not today. They are all unknown, and more critically, they are all largely out of my control. It is my desire to control them that is causing this unease, my craving for certainty in an incredibly uncertain time that leaves me constantly at a loss.
So how do we deal better with uncertainty?
As humans, we’ve evolved to be curious, to understand and predict our environment. The uncomfortable feeling of not knowing is hardwired into our very DNA, as in our past not knowing meant not surviving. How then, do we learn to live with this vulnerability, this raw exposure that we so badly wish to escape?
Tony Robbins has a quote about uncertainty:
The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with.”
Although this is clearly oversimplified, I believe it to be true in respect to the coming weeks and months we face at the mercy of this virus. Uncertainty will be a constant theme, and the quality of our lives in lockdown will most definitely be affected by our ability to get comfortable with it.
For me, dealing with similar issues of uncertainty in the past – notably selection for tournaments – has always led me back to stoic philosophy. Below are three principles born out of stoicism, that I believe can help get us through these uncertain times.
The first is detachment. Fundamentally, we can’t begin to embrace and accept our new uncertain future if we are still fully attached to our old plans or the idea of how we think everything should turn out.
For years I’ve been thinking about my preparations for the Tokyo Olympics. I’ve envisaged the entire build up, my training schedule, opening the selection email, the kitting out day, the weeks and months up to that first game planned down to the day. That’s all gone now. Even if the Olympics goes ahead, that plan is out the window, and the longer I stay attached to that plan the more pain and anguish I cause myself. I must relinquish control and detach myself from any wishing or longing for a future that can no longer exist.
The second principle is that of perspective. The uncertainty pertaining to the two major life events I have coming up this year is clearly enough to cause me some anxiety. Given the significance of those events, I don’t believe this is completely unwarranted. However, the uncertainty is caused by a deadly disease that is killing thousands of people across the entire planet. Economies are shattered, many are out of jobs, doctors and nurses are being worked to the bone whilst putting themselves at tremendous personal risk.
My problems are minute in comparison. ‘Ask yourself, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it? You’ll be embarrassed to answer.’ This quote from Marcus Aurelius stunned me to silence. Yes, the situation we are facing is unprecedented, disruptive, and rather terrifying all at once, but am I not capable of overcoming that? I’m not on the front line, I’m not risking my life to save others, I am not dying. Take perspective.
The final principle I have found to be of use, and one I ironically need reminding constantly to apply, is to be present. In a time where the situation changes so frequently, our lives resetting every evening as Boris delivers another update, it can be easy to get caught up in it all. What an opportunity it is then, in today’s overly connected and busy world, to get to sit with ourselves and discover what it truly means to be present.
As Seneca, the Roman philosopher, put it, “Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” Our values, what’s most important to us, our reason for being, our ‘why’, will likely be questioned through this troublesome time. The opportunity for introspection, to order our minds, to sit and be comfortable with ourselves and what we stand for, will allow us to act with clarity and vigor in the face of uncertainty. Using this quarantine as a chance to cultivate this stillness within ourselves, will prove useful for the rest of our lives.
Ultimately, the next year has been cast into utter uncertainty by this pandemic. But isn’t every year uncertain? Isn’t the future always unpredictable? With the principles outlined above, we give ourselves the ability to choose. To choose detachment over wishing. To choose perspective over ego. And to choose presence over uncertainty. It’s for these reasons that Seneca reminds us: ‘The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.’