Emblem transpoзиция by Andreea Sepi
“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 1789
In an age like ours, when fast-paced technological progress disrupts business and educational models; when old commonly held beliefs are upended and replaced; when traditional parties become obsolete, and social media and virtual reality capture an ever-greater portion of people’s time and imagination – how can we not talk about uncertainty?
But truth be told, certainty has always been an illusion in human life and endeavors. As a young immigrant to Germany, coming from a very short-term oriented culture, I was always bemused by the constant and pervasive talk of pension plans in this country. Who, after all, holds the key to their own future? Can anyone of us really control the future or even ensure we’ll be in it?
Uncertainty is, it would seem, a constant of human existence. It is, perhaps, our most loyal companion in the journey called life, yet we are not at ease with it. Because our brains are more comfortable thinking in clear-cut categories; and uncertainty, like its twin certainty, comes in degrees. People will always strive for lower degrees of uncertainty and higher degrees of certainty. Not many of us are adept at embracing uncertainty and sublimating it into a spiritual experience or treating it like a positive and exciting challenge. And even those that do, do so to overcome it, not to dwell in it forever.
Another aspect must be factored into this equation as well: we live in an age where scientific discoveries have created the expectation of near-certainty; and yet as a species we are emotional and unable to grasp the totality of knowledge out there or to verify all of it to a satisfactory degree of certainty. Human understanding and decision-making continues to rely on impression, belief and deeply rooted emotional convictions more than on proof of facts. Our understanding remains religious in nature: from deity to our trust or distrust of science, the paleo-diet or conspiracy theories.
The advent of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle have increased our unease and turned fear and gore into a daily experience. Events become global and tumultuous. We feel threatened much more frequently than before. Some become numb, some become frantic. It’s all just too confusing.
Which is probably why, when uncertainty increases past a certain degree (excuse the pun!), we are bound to witness a backlash into what is perceived as “safer ground.” The changes seem to outpace our ability to prepare for them and adjust. Fake news, authoritarianism and closed societies proliferate.
But is this really that “higher ground” that can save us? And can we be saved in this way? Can a country truly be autarchic in this day and age? And is that even desirable? A lot of people seem sure, but this is highly uncertain. Is the nation state the most effective means of government, or have societies always really been heterogeneous and the nation state a social and historical construct?…
Is not an open, liberal democracy much better suited to lead us forward, and is the peaceful commingling of cultures and the lively yet civil dialogue of ideas more likely to spark bubbling creativity and to galvanize society around that kind of intrepid cooperation it so desperately needs to adapt to the future and thrive? Or will uncontrolled interaction (especially migration) slowly but surely nudge us into utter chaos?
In Germany there is talk about a so-called Leitkultur, the adoption of which is seen by some as a necessary prerequisite for integration. And while we definitely need a minimum of shared values and norms in order to coexist peacefully, meaningfully and efficiently, should those values be cultural – of ethnic, religious or linguistic nature – or should they be centered around obeying and upholding legal and political norms and behaviors?
Again, who can say with any degree of certainty?
Apart from these macro-issues, there is also a micro-level of psychological uncertainty in individuals. Some are unsettled by a crumbling relationship with their lover, some by losing their job, some by new building projects in their beloved neighborhood, and some by the chemicals in their food – by things that have stopped being the way they used to be. But what about someone who leaves everything behind out of necessity or by conscious choice? What about those that have lost or chosen to lose everything? What about migrants?
The daily grind of immigrants is fraught with the uncertainty of life choices. The language, the system, the job market, the expected normative behavior are all a mystery to them. Many years are lost on trial and error: trying a bit of this, a bit of that, seeing what works, accompanied by constant insecurity about decisions, then changing outlook again.
There is that fundamental uncertainty gnawing at one’s self esteem from deep within: “Am I good enough?” Language barriers and differences in education systems place limits on expression and opportunity, there is loss of status and one needs to rethink everything they felt they knew about themselves up to that point. Skills that were considered valuable in one society are useless or in surplus in another. The immigrant cowers in the face of failure to get a good job, or getting it and being paid less than his local counterparts; she or he experiences rejection and is reprimanded for breaking unspoken rules she or he never knew existed and is eventually confronted with the burning question “Ce fac eu aici?” (“What am I doing here?”), and “Will I ever make it?” The nagging doubt of “Can I find a place here?” wears out one’s confidence to the point that another uncertainty rears its ugly head: “Do I even want to belong here?”
Different people have different coping mechanisms for dealing with uncertainty: some hate it so much, they give up and move back into better known territory, and eventually are left behind or even develop extremists views; some resign themselves to it and look inward, turning to faith, philosophy, patience, or family; some accept it and embrace it, treating it like a challenge along the lines of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Some are risk-averse, some risk everything without batting an eye.
However we choose to look at uncertainty, it is best to be prepared for it. And to keep in mind, it has always been there, and will always be there, even when the pretty curtains of demagoguery are pulled together to cover its gaping mouth.
To deal with ambiguity, we might now turn to the philosopher, theologian, and lawyer St. Thomas More, a man intimately acquainted with the dreadful effects of arbitrary rule: “the partnership of human nature is instead of a league; and kindness and good nature unite men more effectually.”
Eliade, M. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1968). Mariner Books
More, T. Utopia (2017). Simplicissimus Book Farm
Nichols, T. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (2017). Oxford University Press
Scientific American (online, on 21.03.18). https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tough-choices-how-making/
Wikipedia (on 14.03.2018). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_and_taxes_(idiom)
Wikipedia (on 14.03.2018). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitkultur
Kahneman, D. Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (1982). Cambridge University Press
Schwartz, B. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2016). HarperCollins Publishers