Uncertainty is a gift

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In the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson’s words brought to light two important epiphanies for me, Problem Panda and the work of Ernest Becker’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize book The Denial of Death. These works have new and important meaning as the world gets hold of a devastating pandemic. Soon the autopilot so many of us were on shuts off. Then what? Yes, life will go back to some form of regularity; however, what we all should come to value is the gift of uncertainty.

Problem Panda

Manson often has Problem Panda knock on our doors and tell us that life is all about problems. We have to accept this. In accepting this, we can learn to be happier, making our bigger problems, smaller ones.

If I could, I would give all of you $600 million. Why $600 million? I don’t know. That is just the number that sounds nice and came to me. You’d be rich enough to be rich, very rich but still too poor to hang out with Jeff Bezos and friends. The moment I give you that money, the only thing that would change is that you will trade in your old problems for new problems. Yes, you’d no longer have to walk the dog at 5:00 a.m. You could hire a dog walker, and your kids could go to private school and not miss any more pandemic days. However, you’d soon find out that you have a huge “loving” family. Everyone would text, call, and drop by, “Hey, buddy, how ya doing! Yeah, um, look, about the money …” Yep, it’s always about the money.

You would soon discover that before you get that new Alpha Romeo, you have to hire Black Water, change your name, and hide like a celebrity. At some point, you’d probably wish for your old, plain, predictable life. No worries, if you are like most people that get that kind of money, in a few years you would be broke. It turns out, you are no Jeff Bezos after all. You’d be more miserable than you were when you had the 9-5:00 p.m. job.

The goal is to make your bigger problems smaller ones and, to do that, you may have to go on a journey of uncertainty. We will get to that.

For one, I am not convinced that super-rich people are really all that happy. I see very little of it, from the Trumps, to Harry and Meghan, the Queen, the Saudi royal family, from Putin and everyone else noted in the forgotten Panama Papers. Even the god himself, Bezos divorced for the same reasons many of us divorce: “who the hell is this man or woman lying next to me!” If marriage is typical, so is divorce, and both seem susceptible to the same problems we all have. If men are cheaters, well, they have to cheat with someone and that is usually with a woman. Even God has problems of universal magnitude. In fact, it is written that he got so fed up with people that he destroyed the world three times and then thought, I better have a son. He can take over.

Before yelling blasphemy at me, let me stay out of trouble and transition.

If we think about it, celebrity media is made up of scandals. Jennifer Aniston may marry the glorious Brad Pitt only for them to divorce and Pitt to marry the glamorous Angelina Jolie four years later. And Angelina Jolie inherited problems of Kennedy-family proportions.

Nah, I think I will pass for my boring life that includes me, an old apartment, and a puppy Pomeranian. I have problems, too, but as the old saying goes, it’s best to stick with the devil you know.

The Denial of Death

Forgive me for pulling the Grim Reaper on you, but this is important. Problem Panda may be the kind of bear you want to punch in the face, but such an action on the Grim Reaper is sure to end poorly for most of us. As I heard while watching a documentary entitled Miracle on the Hudson, a smart survivor of that fateful but heroic flight said, “We all know we are going to die. We just don’t think it’s today.”

And that is more than a Panda Problem problem. Death is what we are constantly running from, and Ernest Becker takes death, our “death terror,” and makes us face it. To be alive, to be present, one must accept death because death is necessary and as much part of us as life is. In the United States, more people died of COVID in one year than all Americans lost in World War II. That war went on for five years. The U.S. had enough ships to line the Pacific Ocean TWICE, 22 million sailors and 15 million soldiers. Everyone one of us is now a veteran of a world war, and what COVID taught us are these two things: death comes quickly and expect uncertainty.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, there are two life certainties, death and taxes. We hate both of them. I will take the Fifth Amendment on taxes, but we can hate death all we want, but that will not help us. We can run from our death terror, but it will approach us nonetheless, taking some of us much sooner, while leaving others to live on for decades.

In our running from death, we create myths, even the idea that we will live after death, somehow defeat it and rise out of our coffins newly minted or float around in heaven, which may or may not be true. How do I know? I cannot seem to get a ticket to eternity, but I am confident that Mark Zuckerberg is working on it, even the idea of being freeze dried for better days. I fear though, that I cannot afford Zuckerberg’s ticket to eternity. I am not sure I want one anyway. Don’t mess with death.

It may be better to take Albert Einstein’s or what my daughter deliberately calls him, Alfredo Einstein’s approach. Given the infinite possibilities of the universe, it may be scientifically possible for us to exist again, just like we are. That is fine, but I do not want to come back as a slug or Pee Wee Herman (sorry Pee Wee, I did love you once).

No matter what anyone says about their faith, what they believe, how certain they are, the real truth is one of uncertainty. We don’t know, and that uncertainty terrifies us. As Becker references, we are all “shitting gods.” No one knows, and if they tell you they do, Pope or homeless guy, they are lying. You are meant to feel uncertain for uncertainty is certain.

Back in the very late 90’s our task as students was to survey an old cemetery for our ecology class. It was a cool assignment. I learned a lot about 19th-Century graves and about death. Not at all uncommon for graves marked before 1850 was this sight: a mom and dad stone with four to eight little baby ones. Most kids never made it to their fifth birthday. Natural birth morality rates were through the roof, so think twice about natural births outside in the forest. That is like urgently texting the Grim Reaper to “come and hurry.”

Yes, people have the habit of dying, but no one wants to bury a 5-year-old, and it is here that, in general, COVID was kinder and gentler. Though we have lost kids tragically to this virus, it did not target children. Imagine if most of our dead were children under 12? If so, we would know what it is like to be 19th-Century parents. Yes, it can always be worse.

In viewing the cemetery, I also realized that our material wealth was often noted at our grave sites. Rich folks have huge stones and monuments, names displaying with power and pride, and the little kids just had the equivalent of a rock one could easily trip over. I thought to myself, we are not even equal in death. This seems the wealthy’s last-ditch effort to get God’s attention. “Hey, look here, I have the big phallic stone because I was great. Look at me lying here.” In the end, we all are food for worms. Even billionaires cannot run from the great equalizer: death, the death terror. In the end Bezos and I are the same human flesh, and that is all. He can do nothing to stop death; neither can I. We are both equally human.

The Path Toward Uncertainty is the Path Toward Self-Actualization

My late father sent me a message for my birthday before he passed, “Life is a sea of hardships. Bear it well.” I thought to myself, “What kind of birthday wish is that?” I realized that it is a real gift from a man that lived through the Korean war, that swam across the Han River to escape his home, North Korea so that he could be free. He swam and froze while moving toward uncertainty. His dying wish was to go home. He never made it back. His message was simple. Accept that hardships happen. Bare them well, and only then can we be happy.

You all know that if you avoid a problem that problem only gets worse, so does avoiding death and the deaths of those we love. Death is natural, part of the cycle of life, and what lies beyond is uncertainly, and that is okay. We don’t have to know everything, and we are not meant to.

And for those of you brutal skeptics and scientists, I write this. If you can look out upon the universe and see every star and know that every star is a sun, trillions of dots on a dark canvas, those glimmers of infinite light offer the uncertainly of hope. To the most skeptical mind, at some point the universe, our existence, becomes hopefully beyond explanation because maybe the greatest things in life are not a result of planning, of running to the finish line only then realizing that the hope was in running not finishing, but that true happiness is a result of finally knowing what has been uncertain all along. Often and almost always, the darkest moment is the beginning of a new dawn.