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Navigating Uncertainty

Why does the unknown have such a strong hold on the mind? Why does uncertainty produce anxiety,

puts our nerves to the test and puts us in mental and sometimes even physiological discomfort? Consider significant events in your life, school examinations, decision on which field of academia to pursuit, the first job offer or business venture, a career shift, marriage, housing, children and retirement.

As humans, we are wired to fear the unknown and be discomforted by uncertainty. At the macro level, we are in the third year of a pandemic, mired in multiple geopolitical conflicts, and facing economic uncertainty as inflation and central banks shift gears in their monetary policies. At the micro level, we worry if we have made the right decisions or are on the right path. We tend to stick to our tried and tested choices, even for mundane decisions like what to order for dinner.

Consider the achievements that each of us are most proud of. Often the achievements would come after a period of discomfort, uncertainty and doubt. Eventually the narrative would change to perseverance, determination, grit and then success. We have to recognize that uncertainty and opportunities are two sides of the same coin. We have to overcome uncertainty in order to unlock potential and reach the fields of opportunities.

Contemporary societal norms in Singapore objectify successes and eschew failures, and it is often said that we as a people are more risk adverse than the statistical norm. How often do we observe people holding back on suggestions for fear of being ridiculed. People would often place a premium on avoiding being wrong rather than being correct, giving rise to the moral hazard of one not making a decision for fear of recriminations even if it comes at a greater cost to the group.

Are such uncertainties a product of our modern world? Did our ancestors truly have a simpler and more carefree life? I would argue that uncertainty has always existed though time, and has shaped history and civilizations. Let’s examine the accounts of Moses and Gideon.

God appeared to Moses though a burning bush and instructed him to lead His people out of Egypt. Such clear directive and instruction would provide the certainty and clarity for any to act upon. However, from Exodus 3:11-14, we know that Moses hesitated and was uncertain about his authority in confronting Pharaoh, and required God’s reassurance multiple times. From Exodus 4:10-12, we see Moses again expressing uncertainty about his oratory skills. Again, God provided assurance that Moses had been given the requisite abilities to perform the task. We see later in Exodus 4:13-14 that Moses was still plagued with uncertainty and requested for more reassurance, and God granted Moses’ brother Aaron as a speaker.

In examining Gideon’s account in Judges, we read that Gideon, after receiving instructions from God, was uncertain about his ability to save Israel from the Midianites, given than his clan was the weakest in Manasseh (Judges 6:14-28). Gideon then requested for a sign of assurance from God that indeed he was witnessing Him. Similarly, in Judges 6:36-40, we read again that Gideon asked God for another sign of assurance in the form of the wet and dry fleece.

Let’s explore why these righteous men reacted similarly to how we might when faced with uncertainty.

Discomfort: Any element of unpredictability drastically increases one’s level of discomfort.

  • In an experiment where electrical shocks were administered, participants reported greater stress when there was a 50% chance of shock verses 100% chance of shock.

  • We are reluctant to place ourselves in situations with high potential upside if it involves unpredictability. In Exodus 16:1-2, we see how the people of Israel, having escaped Egypt, would rather live in bondage than recognize the freedom that was presented to them.

  • Uncertainty can intensify how threatening a situation feels. Consider what ran though Peter’s mind in Matthew 14:22-31, where, after he joined Jesus on the water, things went well until doubt entered his mind.

Loss Aversion: Losses loom larger than gains

  • In behavioral economics' Prospect Theory, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that people react stronger to losses than corresponding gains. Consider your own emotions when you find out that you have lost $10 verses gaining $10. How much of a premium will you pay to avoid the emotional burden of losses?

  • Loss of tangible assets is the easiest to relate to. A loss of physical assets has the most immediate observable effect. Do we keep old clothes that are no longer fitting, or perhaps old furniture in the hope that someday it would be useful? We equate physical belongings to physiological and safety needs – the two basic rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We know the account of the rich young ruler struggling with similar choices (Mark 10:17-22).

  • Loss of authority, reputation & social standing. When trying to appease people, it can be risky to go against the norm. It is easier to raise your hand in agreement with the masses than to raise your hand in opposition. Even people in authority are not immune to this. Consider Pontius Pilate’s rationale when he washed his hands, thereby shirking responsibility of Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:24). Likewise, King David, perhaps fearful of being exposed in the community, tried various means to hide his tracks leading to the death of Uriah (2 Samuel 11:6-27). How can we better respond to uncertainty knowing that we cannot avoid or remove uncertainty?

Accept the burden of processing uncertainty: Recognize the limits of your control

  • For things within your control, prepare and put a plan in place.

  • For things outside your control, avoid spending excessive time and resources. Limit your anxiety and recognize your limits (Philippians 4:6).

  • Be flexible - recognize that perfection is the enemy of done, and identify what actions you can take now to make some progress.

Practice Adaptability: There is a time for everything

  • Remember there is meaning in all things positive and negative, such meaning perhaps only clear with the passage of time (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

  • Relinquish your will and yield. Recognize our personal limits and when it no longer serves us. The term “Road to Damascus” has come to represent a turning point, and very much so for Saul. When presented with the truth, Saul ceased to be, and the journey of Paul began. Contrast this to the Pharisees that Jesus rebuked (Matthew 23:13-36).

Communicate a bigger purpose: Transcend finite human existence

  • Uncertainty brings about possibilities, change feels risky, and we have to link the negative aspects of uncertainty to potential positive outcomes.

  • Consider Joseph’s journey, from being betrayed by his brothers and being sold into slavery, to his eventual position of influence in the distribution of food during the years of famine. We cannot determine what the future holds and having an optimistic outlook even in dire situations is a test of our faith.

  • In legacy and estate planning, the goal is to be able to provide for future generations, navigating uncertainty and scenarios, the unknown unknowns. We see cultures and customs passed down through generations. As individuals, we gravitate towards a vision of a better tomorrow, and are often willing to make short term sacrifices for long rewards.

  • Paul in Philippians 1:21-24 reflects upon the need the spread the word of God, to save souls, to leave suffering behind and to be with God in eternity. Eventually he concludes that it is better to live and serve his fellow men till he is called home.

Don’t underestimate your ability to cope: Focus on the present

  • We often hate uncertainty because of how we would feel if things go badly. Perhaps it is the fear of ridicule and a loss of credibility. There will always naysayers and armchair analysts trying to advise what went wrong.

  • Humans are generally resilient and can cope with traumatic events better than one can imagine.

  • Just as past performance is no guarantee of future results, past failures do not guarantee future failures! Situations are unique, and it is through failures that we learn to be better versions of ourselves.

  • Of the twelve spies sent to survey Canaan, Caleb and Joshua were the only two that provided factual reports. The others were fearful and provided false reports (Numbers 13:32–33) and had to suffer alongside the Israelites for forty years. Caleb and Joshua must have felt the burden of being associated with the others that were punished. However, they held on, coped with the situation and were eventually vindicated. Caleb was eventually blessed and received the land because he wholly followed the Lord (Deuteronomy 1:34-36)

Self-Care: Sleep, Exercise & Connections

  • Research have shown that sleep deprivation can lead to high production of the stress response hormone cortisol. Cortisol serves as an alarm system for our body, regulates how our body uses carbohydrates, fats and proteins, reduces inflammations and regulates blood pressure, sleep cycles, glucose and energy levels. When too much cortisol is produced, it can lead to rapid weight gain, muscle weakness, diabetes and many other health issues. Sleeping seven to nine hours a night is recommended.

  • When running, the “runner’s high” is reported as a relaxing feeling attributed to a burst of endorphins released during exercise. It is a short lasting, deeply euphoric state following intense exercise, accompanied by psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm.

  • Oxytocin, commonly known as the love hormone, is known to have a positive impact on mood and emotions. It makes one feel connected with others and promotes feelings of love and happiness, and helps us bond with loved ones. Research has shown that it can be released through touch, music and exercise.

  • Seek out connections and find people that can help. As social creatures, we look for meaning, a sense of purpose and a shared journey. Having the right kind of help gets us back on our feet again (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

  • There is no better connection than to God. Know that we are never alone (Isaiah 41:10) and our needs will be provided for (Luke 12:24).

Let us appreciate that absolute certainty is impossible and sometimes the best option is to keep calm and carry on!


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