It has been a time of great uncertainty for me. A lot of changes are happening in the domain of work and life. In all honesty, I have found myself becoming totally preoccupied with thoughts about the unknown future ahead, too overwhelmed to do some of the things I really love doing like spending time with my family, reading, getting outdoors, and blogging (sorry, friends). Many of us experience these prolonged transitions, which are inherently unsettling. Humans are really bad at uncertainty, as we are hardwired for pattern-recognition and predicting the future. When something happens in our life that we can’t neatly identify, categorize, predict, and control, we tend to experience a great amount of distress. This was the basis of my early graduate research with Dr. Kate Sweeny, examining the psychology of uncertainty. Despite having literally co-written the chapter on navigating work-related uncertainty (Sweeny & Ghane, 2015), I find myself in the realm of anxiety, bracing for worst-case scenarios, ruminating on the unknown, and perhaps most upsetting to me: neglecting the present moment.
The problem with our obsession with the future is that it comes at the cost of our current, real-time experience. Sometimes I require constant reminders to tune out the speculations and redirect my attention to what is currently happening. It’s important to note that what is currently happening is always much more rudimentary than the complex, abstract, hypothetical thoughts I could be having about the future. For example, right now, what is currently happening is the familiar (even comforting) sensation of the smooth, warm computer keys under my fingers, and the intuitive dance between hands and keys that allows me to project my innermost ideas on the screen. It’s also the drone of the lawnmower somewhere in my neighborhood, layered with the sound of my cat fervently chasing her toy, and the birds’ intermittent chirping just beyond the patio. It is the aftertaste of coffee and the satisfaction from eating breakfast. It is the rhythm of breath moving through my body. I could go on and on. In fact, I often find that the present moment can become infinitely deep and ever-changing. The more I pay attention to it, the more and more I find. This is what my yoga mentor Scott Miller once described as "jellyfish" consciousness, sensing ourselves in the word, in the most fundamental form.
Furthermore, by bringing myself back into this real-time experience of my life, I am allowing myself to live more fully. I am intentionally choosing to be more psychologically present in whatever is happening right now. The decision to live more fully becomes more striking when we are reminded of the Greatest Uncertainty: Mortality. Among other notable artistic contemplations of human mortality, this sentiment has been captured in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Kurosawa’s Ikiru. However, in America, we tend to label this kind of thought as morbid, often resulting in a sense of fear or terror. But, researchers like Kenneth Vail show that the idea of mortality can sometimes inspire us to live a better life (Vail, Juhl, Arndt, Vess, Routledge, & Rutjens, 2012), marked by greater likelihood of helping others in need (Gailliot, Stillman, Schmeichel, Maner, & Plant, 2008), making environmentally conscious decisions, promoting sustainability (Fritsche, Jonas, Kayser, & Koranyi, 2010), and taking better care of our own health (Cooper, Goldenberg, & Ardnt, 2011). One of my favorite examples of how an awareness and acceptance of death can inspire a more vibrant approach to life comes from Bronnie Ware. Based on the conversations she had with her patients when she worked in a hospice clinic, Ware compiled a list of the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. The list inevitably sparks reflection of our own lives. I’ll leave you here with this piece. I hope it inspires you all to claim this moment as your own and, in the words of Bob Marley, "Wake up and live."
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Cooper, D. P., Goldenberg, J. L., & Arndt, J. (2011). Empowering the self: Using the terror management health model to promote breast self-examination. Self and Identity, 10(3), 315-325.
Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., Kayser, D. N., & Koranyi, N. (2010). Existential threat and compliance with pro-environmental norms. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(1), 67-79.
Gailliot, M. T., Stillman, T. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Maner, J. K., & Plant, E. A. (2008). Mortality salience increases adherence to salient norms and values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 993-1003.
Sweeny, K., & Ghane, A. (2015). Principles for effective coping in uncertain situations. To appear in J. Vuori, R. Blonk, & R. Price (Eds.), Sustainable Working Lives: Managing Work Transitions and Health throughout the Life Course. Springer.
Vail, K. E., Juhl, J., Arndt, J., Vess, M., Routledge, C., & Rutjens, B. T. (2012). When Death is Good for Life Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(4), 303-329.
Ware, B. (2012). The top five regrets of the dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing. Hay House, Inc.