I wake up every day now with uncertainty, wondering what new and frightening updates there will be about the coronavirus pandemic, the protests, the climate and the economy. I read headlines about the pain and uncertainty of soaring jobless rates, the uncertain promise of a Covid-19 vaccine and the uncertainties surrounding the presidential election. Even my daily meditation app buzzes: “Lead with kindness and understanding through the uncertainty.”
“Everything is questionable,” a friend told me not long ago. “Where you go, who you talk to, what you touch. It’s quite stressful, at least for me.” And me, as well.
This isn’t the first time uncertainty has colored my days — and nights. Three decades ago, I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, and I learned nothing could be taken for granted — not my health, not my body, not even my life.
My diagnosis took me from normal to crisis mode in about 48 hours — the time from when the oncologist pointed to a CT scan and told me, “You have cancer here, here and here” to when I found myself being wheeled into surgery.
Amid all of the unknowns of those first few months after learning I had cancer, I was grateful that my oncologist spoke to me in absolutes: “Do this, not that,” he directed time and again. One surgery. Then a second, followed by chemotherapy. The binary nature of his orders — the certainty of it all — made life simpler, if not exactly easier. That first phase of my cancer care, which required quarterly scans and blood work, lasted two years.
Curiously, Phase 1 of the Covid-19 lockdown — with the certainty of the guidance that came with it — reminded me of those first months of my illness and treatment. “Stay at home,” my governor and many officials declared. “Wear a mask.”
Then came Phase 2, the reopening. And with it, the uncertainty of the varying and often conflicting state-by-state guidance on what to do or not do as the virus continues to spread, which took me right back to Phase 2 of my cancer recovery, and all its unknowns. That second phase lasted an additional three years, until my oncologist officially declared me cured.
But to my surprise, those subsequent three years proved deeply unsettling — more challenging than the initial crisis phase. I felt like I was in a netherworld. I was no longer fighting the disease, but I wasn’t cured. I faced the uncertainty of whether I’d have a recurrence — or not — every six months when I went for my scans and checkup. I worried more, even as I saw the doctor less frequently.
Given more latitude, I found myself increasingly allergic to the uncertainty: Denying it. Fighting it. Trying to exert control over it. All of that seems true today as I seek ways to navigate the murkiness of this phase of the pandemic.
This challenging time also reminds me of a good friend and grad school colleague of mine who faced a sudden and life-threatening illness several years after mine. His wife, Julia Liss, a professor at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., recently told me that she faced the uncertainty of her husband’s prognosis by aiming to “master what was going on — understand it, make decisions about treatment, figure out the course to recovery.” As his illness worsened, she relied increasingly on “order as a coping mechanism.” When food shopping, for example, “I’d go down every single aisle, even if I didn’t need to,” she recounted.
“Then there was the time they reorganized the aisles, and it was chaos,” she continued with a sense of humor about the limits of being obsessively controlling.
During Phase 2 of my own recovery, I found myself trying the same control-focused strategy. Not by grocery shopping, but by creating a detailed daily calendar, in 30-minute intervals, starting with my first cup of tea at 6:30 a.m. and ending 14 hours later in front of the TV for an hour break. I wanted to believe that by ordering the day, I could regain mastery of my life — and my illness. Ultimately, the exercise proved exhausting and foolish.
Reluctantly back then, I concluded that I had to accept uncertainty as part of life. Instead of boxing in my feelings about uncertainty — what psychologists refer to as “compartmentalization” — I devised a strategy of letting those fears out from time to time. In my mind, I likened this new response to a dam release, in which a rising river is discharged slowly, instead of waiting for a catastrophic flood.
If I didn’t find a way to let the uncertainty escape, I feared I’d drown in it. I developed an arsenal of weapons to combat it: I slept forever. I saw a psychotherapist, where I gave words to “it.” On bad days, I would practice breathing exercises to calm the nervous system. (Inhale for four counts, hold for seven and release for eight.) On the worst days, I’d pop a high-dose blue Valium.
Three decades later, those lessons about living with uncertainty during my cancer recovery help guide me through the uncertainties of the pandemic. I feel the powerful urge to control, yet again. If only I could see the virus, I could avoid it. If only I knew when life would go back to normal, I could make plans for the fall or next year. As with my cancer, I want to create order out of chaos. But I see that I’m also trying to create hope out of darkness.
Again, I learned from Professor Liss. As her husband continued to fail, with his odds of survival lessening and his end drawing near, she realized, “When things are overwhelmingly hard and scary, and the prognosis is generally not good, sometimes hope lies in the unknown,” she told me. It took me a few minutes to grasp what she meant as she continued, “Uncertainty and unpredictability — suddenly and surprisingly — are where there’s an opening for hope.”
She summed up her hard-earned wisdom this way: “Uncertainty is hope.”
Uncertainty can be hope. I might add that uncertainty can also be possibility, which I needed all those years ago, as much as we do right now.
Steven Petrow (@stevenpetrow), a regular contributor to Well, lives in Hillsborough, N.C.