I have not found it any easier to accept uncertainty in recent years, despite my intellectual acceptance that it is unavoidable.
Covid has (thus far) been a walk in the park when compared to the wholesale slaughter and general bestiality of the 20th Century. Not for those who have died of course, or their families, but numerically speaking.
The shocking examples from the last century are so well known, they are hardly worth revisiting. A Jew in the 1930s and 40s. An intellectual in communist Russia or China. A parent during two obscene world wars. What need to continue. Covid is not so alarming by comparison.
And yet it has helped me to organize my thoughts somewhat, even though I have been little inconvenienced personally. I was isolated enough before the modern plague struck and so repeated lockdowns have provided little physical or mental irritation.
But the events of the past year have put human life, human travails in sharper than ever perspective for me.
A friend and neighbour in London owns and runs a large retail chain, a household name in UK high streets. The enterprise was founded some 150 years ago and has presumably suffered both rough and smooth during that period. And yet to me it has always seemed a bastion of security, a fixed reference point in an ever shifting world.
In reality, such security has never existed and I was interested to hear the moves necessary to survive in the current market. Shop rent has to be paid out of capital reserves while little income has been earned. Presumably like most other retailers, this chain was also suffering anyway from online competition.
A young man of my acquaintance has lost his job in finance I gather, and I am told his wife was also made redundant. I hope that their youth will make them resilient enough to weather this storm, and that they will soon find new jobs to support their two children and mortgage.
A relative has been operated on for cancer – I have no idea how serious her plight may be. Friends have started dying. Nothing so surprising there perhaps, given my age but none the less, change is never welcome, however much it is expected. In the same vein, my parents died 5 years ago and in the interim my wife’s relatives are going the same way.
None of this seems quite so shocking when you are young. We tend to feel exempt, immortal. Death and disaster happens to others, elsewhere. As life goes on our mortality becomes ever more evident and certainty fades.
I believe that if you look for reasons for what is happening around you, you will find cause and effect to be a slippery customer. At very short time frames, it is of course possible to say that the plight of many retailers has been greatly worsened by the onset of Covid. Or that your relative died because he had developed a brain tumor.
But such reasoning is highly unsatisfactory and inevitably leads back to the big existential questions. The big scientific questions.
The biggest question is probably “Why?” and we have not begun to answer it. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” being one of the biggest conundrums we have yet to face.
In terms of our current stage of technological and scientific advancement, the answer to most of the big “Why?” questions has to be: “it just is”.
It may transpire over the millennia that there is no other answer to be found.
But of course that will never satisfy us. We will keep looking.
My guess is that eventually intelligent civilization will be able to mitigate the effects of chaos and uncertainty on our lives. Meaningless deaths from cancer. Poverty, illnesses of all sorts. Even death itself may be abolished as we learn to upload our personalities from our frail biological framework to a more durable medium.
We may even learn to transcend physical reality – free our minds to roam in heavenly lands without worrying about paying bills or the lights going out.
Back in the 21st Century however, we are still subject to chaos. We remain as flotsam in an apparently meaningless universe. Jetsam, a by product, an accident of evolution. If we survive that long, then over the next few thousand years, we may hope to make our own meaning where their was none.
But what can we do today to mitigate the anxiety and torment of our still all too precarious lives?
Historically, the answer has been to take as much as we can from others and pile up riches in an attempt to secure our own precarious existence.
Although of course, there have been non materialist attempts to quell anxiety and find purpose. Chief among these have been the invention of gods – all sorts of different gods, stretching back to the times we first gained sentience.
Gods answer the question “Why?” for those who believe. Gods also mitigate our anxiety over chaos. Propitiate this or that fearsome thug in the sky and your crops will grow, your enemies will wilt and your soul will exist in an eternal bliss after your body has rotted.
More modern gods have tended to be slightly nicer that the older monsters. They have apparently strung themselves up and died for us and if we only believe in them, they will save us.
All well and good for those who can convince themselves, less useful for those of us that are sure we are either a) on our own or b) in a malevolent virtual reality slung together by an evil super coder.
So where does all that leave us? If you don’t buy the god stuff and don’t have a few millennia to hang around and become a technological god yourself, then you need some method to cope with uncertainty. With untamed chaos.
The only answer I have come up with over many years is to shut my eyes and say “f**k it”. Rather like the Buddhists really!