Certain uncertainty

Posted on October 12, 2011


The old saying, there’s nothing as certain as death and taxes has always seemed to me terribly small-minded and reductionist: a gripe of those who don’t like change and who hate even more the thought of parting with their hard-earned dosh.

Dying still seems a certainty (although doctors would have us believe that a state of agelessness is on the way); and taxes…well they’re taxes aren’t they!

But there are lots of things that we seem to take as certainties, or perhaps relative certainties (which is of course a contradiction in terms, for either something is a certainty or it’s not).  In first tier economies we assume that children will be educated, that people will have access to housing, and in many countries, that the State will provide for those in need.  We assume that our social structures will continue  – that families will form, children will be born, young people will mature and that generations will take up the mantle from their parents in society when it is their time. We assume that old people will be looked after and that in death, our loved ones and even those without kin will receive a respectful funeral.

The truth is that not all of these expectations are in fact certainties.  There is homelessness, and a surprising number of children remain illiterate and inumerate at the end of school.  So, actually, what we comfortably rely on as certainties are not such, and indeed, these expectations may be failed increasingly now.

But we know that just as so much of our economic future is uncertain, we also know that society is changing too.  Families are not just mum, dad and the kids anymore.  There are almost as many families as there are people: single parents, couples without kids, same-sex families, extended families, and people who chose to remain single or whose families are made of their friends.  And people are changing too.  In my Grandmother’s days, social codes meant girls grew up as girls and boys as boys, but of course, now the range of human experience means that we have many more gendered/sexed identities than just men and women, or girls and boys.

There is an inherent uncomfortability in uncertainty.  Even the most resilient of us seeks comfort in the familiar, the solid ground upon which we base our lives. Perhaps though we create myths about ourselves to reinforce this sense of certainty and comfortability when in fact things are far more uncertain than we are prepared to admit to ourselves or anyone else.  How many of us go around thinking about our own deaths and when this might come upon us?  I suspect that most of us put this thought far into the back of our minds, preferring instead to live in a present-future in which death is not an ever approaching reality.  So while death is a certainty, we prefer to obfuscate its arrival through mind tricks which place this inevitability into the never-never.  With uncertainty though comes fluidity.  While there isn’t much chance to come back from the dead, there is a lot of fluidity about how we view our lives and our live-spans.  We could die now, tomorrow, next week – or in years, decades to come.

If we accept things are far more fluid than we expect, we also open up to so many more possibilities, and ultimately, the opportunities these provide for fresh and unexpected experiences.  In a far more fluid world – a world where we are forging new possibilities – what becomes uncertain also becomes a new avenue for exploration.  The complexity that this brings can be immensely rich.  How though do we negotiate such a complex world?  Do we know all that we think we do about ourselves, let alone the people and societal structures around us?  What more is there to discover and how does this change the way we relate to the world and to each other?

In an uncertain world, it seems that reductionist, cast-iron models of ourselves and our society are a tempting but ultimately damaging retreat.  I for one want to find out what the complexity of a more fluid world brings.