Last Thursday Danny Buckler and I had a conversation on his livestream about – and ways in which we deal with – uncertainty. Some technical hiccups aside, which certainly reminded us that nothing, least of all a secure internet connection, is indeed certain, we had a jolly nice time doing it.
The theme of the conversation has been percolating through my mind since, and I’d like to, if I may, presently pour forth the brewed and full-bodied concoction of my thoughts. And if you fancy a serving of the unfiltered version go to TheDannyBucklerShow on Instagram.
The first thing that strikes me with this is that uncertainty is a feature of our existence rather than a bug in the system. It’s an ever-present truth. Yes, right now the world might appear less certain than usual, but the pandemic and current social upheaval are simply (painful) illustrations of this truth. We cannot count on anything as certain. Except that one day, and we’re by no means certain of which, we will die.
The Buddhists and Existentialists would add suffering to life’s very short list of certainties, and I’d tend to agree.
Which paints a right old jolly picture doesn’t it?
Well, actually, I’d like to suggest it does.
But only, perhaps, if we succeed in flipping expectations.
To explain my meaning, I’d like to turn to Victor Frankl because to him there was nothing more meaningful than meaning itself, so who better? His inspirational writing and new wave of psychotherapy was entirely based on it.
In Man’s Search For Meaning he recounts his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps during World War II from an existential perspective. In it he writes, “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
This was his response to his fellow inmates who’d given up on life not necessarily because the conditions of it were unbearable but because, it seemed to them, life itself no longer had anything to offer.
Frankl’s response is extraordinary when you consider the context—extraordinary in its humility and call to duty.
When, I imagine, it would be so easy to give up all hope, so understandable to feel victimised, so tempting to see the ending of one’s own interminable suffering as the only act of agency left, he’s proposing precisely the opposite.
He’s saying that even in the very worst imaginable conditions, we humans have an obligation to life itself, to meet whatever challenges, whatever suffering, whatever uncertainty it presents us, with commensurate moral and spiritual fortitude. To take our lot, our cross, our burden, and bear it with the dignity and courage of which we’re capable.
He’s saying that we have no right to demand and expect a thing from life, but, rather, it is Life that demands and expects from us.
I say all this of course from my softly furnished flat in modern London while I sip a cup of coffee, tapping on a laptop; a whole world and more away from the incomprehensible reality of those prisoners’ suffering, and so a part of me feels contemptible passing any kind of judgement whatsoever, even of the admiring kind.
But if a human being, in Victor Frankl’s case, can not only withstand hardship beyond imagination in order to survive but see that very hardship as an opportunity to find meaning in it by acting therein with honour and spirit, then can’t we all try to do the same?
And forgive me, I realise I’m not the first to read his book and feel inspired, but its lessons feel relevant to today.
I believe we’ve come to believe – especially in recent times when coffee and laptops and soft furnishings are, for the vast majority of us, so expected as to be almost un-noteworthy, when the vast majority of us have the means and power to have and consume almost anything we want almost instantaneously – that life revolves around us.
But much like the short-sighted certainty of the geocentrists believing the planets and stars revolved around the Earth, our current egocentrism is being contested now today. Just as the Sun and the planets don’t revolve around our own small spec of existence, Life doesn’t revolve around us either. Rather, don’t we orbit Life?
And when we can begin to change our thinking, to flip the perspective of expectation, to see that Life expects of us and not the other way around, maybe then we can begin to find and experience the true riches that Life has in its possession and is so willing to share with those who prove worthy of them; of meaning, purpose, fulfilment, contentment, community, connection and love.
Which paints a right old jolly picture, doesn’t it?
Now, to conclude with some practicalities of this philosophy, I’d like to remind myself as much as anyone that feeling the fear of our existential uncertainty is an understandable, entirely human, reaction to our conditions. Trials and tribulations fling themselves at us daily.
But can we accept life’s vicissitudes as gifts, as occasions to enact our highest possible moral and spiritual potential? This is what Victor Frankl is not only suggesting but instructing if we are to find true meaning rather than escape and denial from our realities.
When I feel scared, anxious, shy, timid – which I do at times almost every day – and I’m able to get beyond my initial child-like urge to run away or shut down, I decide to locate the physical sensations of this fear, anxiety or shyness in my body. Our emotional responses are a simultaneous two-tier experience after all: the cognition of emotion (the story we tell ourselves in our brains) and the somatic sensations of that emoting (muscle tension, trembling, shallow breath, clammy palms and so on). I decide to shift my focus from the cognitive to the somatic because I know I spend too much time in my head anyway, at the expense of my body’s ease.
So I locate the tension (almost always clenched abdominals, jaw and chin, with fingers picking away at the nails of their neighbours like little cannibal zombies), and once located and put under the spotlight it just feels, well, a bit silly and pointless to remain in this state, almost like I’d be insisting on it in mindless defiance of my own peace and wellbeing.
This is often my own first small, but no less real, step in responding to life with the highest moral and spiritual potential I have at my disposal. That might sound a tad solipsistic or trivial, but if I can replicate this exact same principle when in contact with others, when I’m called upon to act with honour, such as owning up to wrongdoing after an argument or choosing an honest response instead of fibbing, when the easier path would be escape or dishonest sabotage, then it’s anything but solipsistic and trivial, it is in fact fulfilment of Life’s expectations of me in that moment. And when I meet Life’s expectations, I feel proud – and certain – to be alive.
With love, Jake x