A Flexible or Certain Approach to Facing the Unknown

While browsing social media yesterday, I read a statement about our current predicament. It can be summed up as follows:

“I don’t care if three million people die in the US, I just want to get on with it. Social distancing kills the economy.”

People who make such statements often start sentences with things like:

  • “They should just…”
  • “I have never….”
  • “I always said…”
  • “It is so easy to see why….”
  • “They just overcomplicate things by….”
  • “Mark my words, this is just because…”

Strong statements often appeal to us when we don’t know what to do.

Strong statements allow us to cover up our feelings of vulnerability.

Strong statements no matter their cause can lead to war, murder, and even genocide.

When we feel a ball of uncertainty coming toward us, it can feel comforting, short term at least, to bat that ball away from us hard and fast with strong statements and easy-to-grasp solutions.

The trouble is that when we hit uncertainty away with our attempted one-sided explanations, the next ball of fear and worry will be thrown at us soon enough. And each time, we will have to hit harder with new explanations. Each time, the explanations can become a little more one-sided, a little more extreme, and a little more far-fetched.

But we dig in our heels. We can’t let that uncertainty get to us now and undo all the times we have already swung that bat of certitude and dodged the existential worry balls coming at us.

Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. We hold on ever-tighter to “truths” on which we build our beliefs about the world. Even if those “truths” are shattered by facts and research. Then we shoot the messengers and call into question the fact finders and the researchers. We will do anything to hold on to our world view. It feels as if our lives, or at least our self-respect, depends on it.

Defending our certitudes becomes how we deal with situations around us even when the world changes constantly.

The trouble is that in difficult and uncertain situations, certitude and easy answers often come up short.

As much as we want to offer solutions and swing at those pesky balls of worry and uncertainty that are leveled against us, the truth is that often nobody knows exactly what to do and for how long.

Nobody has the answers.

Nobody has all the answers anyway.

In difficult situations, such as the one we are in right now with Covid-19, the best we can hope for is complex and constantly evolving partial answers. We can piece together the information by listening to many different sources and vet them for accuracy.

What was the advice given yesterday (don’t wear masks) might change today (wear masks). We, then, need to realize that our behavior needs to change along with the new information being unearthed.

We don’t like it when uncertain circumstances leave everyone floundering. This amplifies the need for us to seek certainty. And for some, certain action, even if it offers unthinkable consequences, is better than uncertainty.

The trouble is that if we were to accept a death toll of three million by skipping social distancing practices right now, all models indicate that it will include scenarios where the healthcare system will be so overwhelmed that people having a heart attack or who need treatment for cancer and other life-threatening diseases will have to be turned away. So will many suffering from Covid-19. A laissez–faire approach to this virus will exasperate the death toll into an unthinkably gruesome and unacceptable number of victims.

On the other hand — only wanting to save every life and shut down all social interaction until there is absolutely no risk, could stifle the economy to a point that the consequences would be awful as well. This is not a time for either-or. This is a time for both-and.

Many in the medical community and most economists agree on some things.

They broadly agree that looking carefully at models in which social distancing measures are observed for the foreseeable future is the best course of action. There is broad consensus that these social distancing measures are eventually to be relaxed, but that the situation will need to be carefully monitored, and the measures might get re-applied if necessary.

Most economic models show that relaxing social distancing measures too soon can be catastrophic, and too late can be as well.

We need to look at those people who spout easy answers and quick remedies with great suspicion. We need to insist that their statements are vetted carefully. But should seemingly magic bullets appear, by all means, we need to be wise enough to allow them to be tested.

We will need to collaborate internationally for solutions, and also across many disciplines nationally.

Chances are that there are no easy answers.

Chances are that there are, in fact, many partial solutions that when applied with care, foresight, and constant evaluation will help us all get through it.

This too shall pass.

This too shall pass.

This too shall pass.

Each of us can only do so much. On the other hand, each of us can do something. Right now, the best thing we can do is to socially distance, check our sources carefully, and keep eyes, ears, hearts, and mind open.

Author “The Blues — Why it Still Hurts so Good,” artist manager. PhD Wisdom Studies. Contributor: The Daily Beast, The Bern Report, Classic Rock Blues Magazine.

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