I was 20 years old the first time I camped outdoors and, honestly, I hated it. I grew up with very protective parents. I heard horror stories about the world being a dangerous place, full of child molesters, serial killers, and deadly natural disasters. So, when I slept outdoors for the first time in my life, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the terrifying things that may be lurking in the dark forest. Fortunately, I have since become more familiar with the sounds and sensations of sleeping in the wilderness, and I have come to cherish them all. And yet, I still have some worry and reluctance when I cross a steep and narrow path on a hike, or if I hear an unfamiliar howl in the distance. To some extent, this reluctance is generally adaptive. Nature can be unpredictable, wild, and yes, dangerous. This can be true of the civilized world as well, of course. Those dark and dangerous stories that my parents warned me about can be true.
Recently, however, I have started to pay more attention to the absence of dangerous, worrisome things. Looking back, I think about all of the disasters that I anticipated in the aftermath of failed relationships or professional endeavors. Then, I think about how all of these things just ended up working out, somehow. Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert have explored this phenomenon in depth with their now famous research on affective forecasting. Across the board, the research finds that people tend to overestimate the duration and intensity of the impact that life events (e.g., getting divorced, getting fired or laid off, or becoming injured or ill) will have on their overall wellbeing . We underestimate our own ability to adapt and cope with life.
Ultimately, this research reminds me that even for some of the trickiest questions and blind uncertainties I face in my life at any given moment, I don’t necessarily have to strain myself to try to come up with a “solution.” This is easier said than done, of course, as the human brain is wired to anticipate, predict, and avoid future threats to wellbeing. I do find, however, that sometimes simply by reflecting back on the absence of devastation in the scariest moments in my life, I can conjure a sense of hope for the future. I can allow myself to abandon the laborious task of trying to predict what comes next and try to shield myself against any and all potential harm.
The truth is, we will experience difficult things. Disaster and destruction are facts of the natural and civilized world. However, our cultural and personal narratives often neglect to bring attention to the shining moments of courage, resilience, and compassion that occur in the aftermath of these inevitable life events. Even in my personal narrative, I often look back at the smile on my face in a photograph, and I forget the arduous struggles that accompanied the most thrilling adventures I have experienced in my life. I forget that uncertainty and discomfort are always inherent in times of exploration and growth. By embracing this paradox, I find hope. Hope, not in the form of blind optimism. But in the sense that author Rebecca Solnit describes it:
“But hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises. Or perhaps studying the record more carefully leads us to expect miracles - not when and where we expect them, but to expect to be astonished, to expect that we don't know. And this is grounds to act.”
Perhaps today, you might find a chance to look back at your own life and notice the hollows: the lack of the worst possible outcomes. Think about all of the times when uncertainty and beauty have collided unpredictably in your life. By connecting these moments of surprise, we illuminate a trajectory of resilience and unexpected goodness, we find reason for hope.
1. Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131-134.