I was amused, but not surprised, to discover that there is a Global Insecurity Index, and also further unsurprised to learn the index is registering at an all-time high. The Global Insecurity Index doesn’t measure how people are feeling; rather, it’s a measure of “global economics and policy,” but as we know, one follows the other, entangled together in an unwanted waltz. See chart below, which tells the tale — the most important data point is how much of the blue is above the red line, which marks the index’s average since it was begun. (Further disclosure: It’s possible I may have editorialized the chart to capture how I imagine the January 6 Insurrection further impacted the Index.)
Maybe my chart is an easy laugh, but in times of all-time-highest-registered worldwide uncertainty, easy laughs are to be treasured. Or at least tolerated in good humor.
But I think a lot about uncertainty, and did long before I discovered this index, and before Trump darkened the doorstep of the White House casting his shadow over America and our very sense of… solidity.
In these past four years, we collectively have lost the fantasy that America is a good, safe place; that it is a predictable beacon of hope for freedom around the world; and that Democracy is a stable, solid thing. These are huge foundations to suddenly see go drifting away. Even if we didn’t know it, those foundations made it easier for each of us to handle whatever uncertainties arose in our own lives; we never even had to think about the world tipping sideways as we each carried our own agonies, which come and go.
Now we all share a more universal uncertainty.
I said early in the pandemic to a woman I was interviewing for a story, as we kibitzed about the changes in our lives and how we were faring, that the pandemic had ushered in, for me, a sense of company. In 2010 I had my life blown up in a series of events that bumped me out of the safe groove I thought I was in, a groove that I thought was my destiny and my right, and that I thought I had earned. (For readers new to me, in six months I lost my parents, my career, and my partner, and my 6-year-old son, my only child, went into a huge crisis caused by the chaos in my life and his struggles at school.) And in the years since, I’ve learned that there were many other things to lose — top among them, I had to let go of the idea that I controlled my path in life.
I had to learn that, just like the stock market disclaimers say, that my previous success was no guarantee of future success. I had to accept that my business had changed radically, and that I was old enough now that I was unlikely to be considered for leading positions. Add to that that I had moved way out of the city, to help my son and get him into a smaller school where he could thrive (and thrive he did), but I had also moved myself out of opportunity.
All of those facts and choices meant I no longer had a path laid in front of me. I didn’t quite realize that the architecture of my life in my mind was a ladder, until the ladder was gone.
I miss the ladder. I won’t pretend that making a lot of money doing work I really loved with a team of incredibly smart, passionate people wasn’t fun and rewarding (not to mention, comfortable). And I’m so glad I knew how lucky I was, even then.
But what I’ve gained from living in a somewhat constant state of uncertainty (what am I doing with my life? how am I making money? how will I find a new path? who can I rely on? who are my ride-or-die people?) is both numinous and bedrock: I’ve learned I’m not a superhero; I’m human. I’ve learned I can’t think my way out of every difficulty; I’m vulnerable. I’ve learned that life is way more tenuous than it is for the really lucky among us — and that the lucky among us are the ones who build the larger reality of what “life” is “like” in America. And in 2020, being someone who already knew that life in this country can be shamefully hard was a kind of relief.
The woman I was interviewing began interviewing me, fascinated by the choices I’d made and the choices that had been made for me. She herself ran a large, successful company that had lost almost 100 percent of its business since the pandemic began. She was facing questions, so she asked me questions: So what are you doing? What are your plans? How did you adjust to making so much less money? Aren’t you worried for your future? And, most telling, she said: “YOU HAVE TO TELL THIS STORY. WE” — meaning women who had lives like I once had — “NEED TO KNOW WHAT TO DO.”
I completely one-hundred percent identified with the sense of panic in her voice. I had been there, after all. And had been there for many years. It probably took me eight years, actually, to come to terms with the fact that my former life was my former life, that my new and constant uncertainty wasn’t “my fault” (though it certainly was based on choices I’d quite intentionally made to move myself away from work being my sole identity). But the biggest reality I had to come to terms with was the certainty was no longer on my side, was no longer my M.O., and that I was going to have to learn to live with my tender, quaking vulnerability being constantly visible to me.
And I have done that. At last. And even though I embrace uncertainty — because, truly, what is our choice? most methods of denial come with very high price tags — I still don’t like it, even though now I can carry it daily. I have learned how to make life decisions, and carry on with life, and fumble forward without knowing what I’m doing, and I can do that without a constant sense of heavy dread sitting, metallic, in the pit of my stomach (which was my companion for many years).
We tend to attribute our own successes and good fortune to a combination of our hard work and luck. Yet we tend to attribute other people’s losses to some mistake they made (as I wrote in my book, divorce is like lung cancer: everyone wants to know whether I smoked, and brought the cancer of divorce into my life by my own failings).
I know very little for sure these days (see also: embracing uncertainty). But what I do know is that it is only through our own losses that we come to understand that there is no grand contract in life; there is no ladder. There is only the day in front of us and whatever it brings with it. And then we react, or not (for that is, too, a choice), to the good or bad within it.
Life is good; life is hard. These two notions, however, are completely unrelated. And yet we spend most of our lives writing stories in our head about how everything is related to some set of rules.
But what we learned in 2020 is nothing is guaranteed. Not Democracy. Not decency. Not science or common sense.
But chaos isn’t the definitive result of no guarantees. Instead of foment (and storming the Capitol), uncertainty brings with it quiet gifts, or it has for me. In learning to make friends with uncertainty, I fell in love with my gentle side. I learned to love my inner worrier, instead of chastising her for the worry. I discovered that I do have faith — not that I will be able to manifest a future full of safety and security, but that I will figure things out for myself, as I always have.
Embracing uncertainty allowed me to find the path to the quiet space in my mind and in my heart, where I still feel a sense of magical wonder for small things, and where spending time with my family is the best treasure, and where taking care of my body instead of ignoring it feels like a vitally important way of honoring my very life.
These rewards may not seem like much, but having a clear sight to those little treasures is what carried me through 2020 — and what will carry me through all I don’t know about what comes next.
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How do you carry your uncertainty? I’d love to hear about it in comments.