Living with uncertainty during the time of the coronavirus

I would wager that uncertainty is the main cause of stress most of us are feeling during this coronavirus pandemic. We are uncertain how long we will be forced to live largely inside our own homes, conducting business and friendships on Zoom or Facetime, and seeing only family members face-to-face. We are unsure of whether the precautions we are taking, from social isolation to hand-washing and wiping down surfaces, are what is actually called for. We have no way to know whether we’ll get sick, and, if we do, whether we’ll recover. And we hear different stories of what life will be like when we finally emerge on the other side of this odd and uncomfortable period. Will the world we step back into be recognizable?

Most of us do a lot to avoid uncertainty in “normal” life, from eating the same cereal every morning to regularly calling our mother or sister on Sundays. We look at our weekly calendars to find out what the next seven days will be like, and the appointments we’ve scheduled give us security and confidence that the week will bring what we expect. Which is why during this period all those crossed-out appointments and blank days give us a good deal of anxiety. 

According to a Post-ABC poll, nearly 7 in 10 Americans say they are worried that they or someone in their immediate family might catch the disease. Over half say that they are at personal risk of getting sick, and 20% say they are at high risk. Clearly, the risk-factor is a critical focus of uncertainty during this pandemic. 

I’ve talked with several friends who are transforming their assumed risk into the strange comfort of certainty. One, citing statistics, says he is simply assuming he will contract the virus at some point before it subsides. (I hope he is working against his certainty by trying to prevent the virus through vigilance about the advised changes to our behavior, not helping his assumption along by being careless.) Another, advanced in age with COPD, has given his relatives a kind of advanced health-care directive: he does not want to be taken to the hospital, where he is sure he will be denied a respirator, and instead wants to die in the comfort of his home. Perhaps my two friends’ images of the illness and death that lie in their futures go under the category of: if you plan for the worst, you can only be pleased by life’s surprises. But I think that the difficulty of experiencing uncertainty is also what drives them to create a “certain” scenario, however dire. 

Obviously, the coronavirus has multiplied the uncertainties of our lives.  But the truth is, even in the best of times, the sense of safety that most of us hold onto is largely an illusion, especially when that safety is directed at those aspects of life that we care about remaining the same. Everything changes. Our bodies, which for a long time grew increasingly virile, begin to weaken. Our homes deteriorate, until we power wash and repaint, and the cycle starts over again. Our friends and loved ones change; if we can change with them, our relationships continue, even thrive; but if not, they end, sometimes painfully. Our gardens appear sickly one year, but the next year when they flourish, we sigh with relief, only to feel defeated when they appear scraggly the third year. Nothing stays the same.  

The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, writes beautifully about how we exhaust ourselves, spending our energy and wasting our lives, trying to re-create zones of safety, which keep falling apart. This is a good time to remember her words: “The root of suffering is resisting the certainty that no matter what the circumstances, uncertainty is all we truly have.”  

May we feel peace amidst the many uncertainties of this period.


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.  She is trained as a spiritual director.

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