Features, Life

Oliver Burkeman on… change

When it comes to change, sometimes you’ve just got to ride the waves, says our New York-based psychology columnist

We live, as you might have noticed, in uncertain times. Wherever you look – at politics, the economy, the world of work, the environment – you’ll find good reason to feel anxious.

We seem to live “in a time of unusual insecurity”, writes the philosopher Alan Watts. “As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer rocks on to which we can hold.” It’s hard to disagree. There’s only one problem: Watts wrote those lines in 1951.

Almost everybody, since the beginning of civilisation, has believed that their era was uniquely uncertain, and that things were spiralling out of control. Some ancient Greeks worried about the newfangled invention called “writing”, just as people worry about internet addiction today. Nineteenth-century commentators thought trains were a bad idea, because they’d move so fast that people would suffocate. It always feels like now is the most unpredictable time to be alive – which makes sense. The past never feels unpredictable because… well, because it’s already happened.

None of this means we don’t live in uncertain times, of course. It just means – as philosophers have been pointing out for centuries – that uncertainty is a fact of life, not some passing phase.

So is it possible to stay sane, even to thrive, in such an unpredictable atmosphere? Yes, but most of us go about it the wrong way. We try to stamp out the feelings of uncertainty. If you’re feeling insecure in a relationship, you pester your partner for reassurance that she or he still loves you; if you’re feeling insecure at work, you play it safe and choose not to pursue risky but exciting options when they come your way.

The alternative approach – embracing uncertainty – feels like a tall order. But it doesn’t entail resigning yourself to whatever happens; for example, sticking with a partner, or a job, that makes you feel perpetually insecure. It just means accepting what the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön calls “the groundlessness of our situation”: the basic fact that you’ll never eliminate the unpredictable element from life, and that the only certainty is change. You stop thinking of life like climbing a mountain – believing you will one day reach the summit and finally be at peace – and treat it instead like you’re surfing. The waves won’t ever stop, but you’ll get much better at dealing with them without going under. And like a good surfer, you might even have fun. 

How do you do this in practical terms? One cheesy but surprisingly effective technique suggested by the writer Susan Jeffers is to make a list of the things you hope for in life – “I hope I find a good spouse” or “I hope I get that promotion” – and rewrite them using the phrase “I wonder”. (“I wonder if I’ll get that promotion” and so on.)

Another, whenever you’re making a major decision, is to ask if you’re going in the direction that’s truly right for you – or if it’s simply the one that temporarily reduces your feelings of uncertainty.

Ultimately, strange as it might seem, a dose of uncertainty makes life better, not worse. As Jeffers observes, if you knew with total confidence how the rest of your life would unfold, it would be intolerably boring. Yes, uncertainty is scary, but it’s also where all the interesting stuff happens.

Oliver Burkeman is a Brooklyn-based writer for The Guardian. His book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is out now

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