We live in interesting times, and the future has never before seemed so unpredictable. Whether it’s a changing climate, pandemics, AI, the internet of things, the internet of bodies, big data, war, political division, genetic engineering, mass extinction, economic volatility, or supply chain disruption, it can often feel like we’re caught in a maelstrom of cross-currents and great crashing waves of change.
The human brain doesn’t much like this. According to Anil Ananthaswamy:
“…many neuroscientists are pivoting to a view of the brain as a “prediction machine.” Through predictive processing, the brain uses its prior knowledge of the world to make inferences or generate hypotheses about the causes of incoming sensory information. Those hypotheses — and not the sensory inputs themselves — give rise to perceptions in our mind’s eye. The more ambiguous the input, the greater the reliance on prior knowledge.”
So, paradoxically, the more the world shifts from linear progression to quantum leaps, the more the brain tries to use history to navigate the future, exactly at the time when history is losing its value as a reliable guide. The self-protective ego freaks out when it can’t predict what is going to happen next, so it would prefer to create the illusion of predictability, even when that is increasingly at odds with reality.
The statement of the Hopi Elders offers a better strategy:
“There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.”
Even while the ego-mind might be busy losing its cool, my experience has been that it becomes a lot easier to cope with uncertainty when you stop fighting it, and embrace it. If you can’t beat the flow of the river, join it. Change your story from “unpredictability is scary” to “unpredictability is exciting”. Abandon certainty in favour of curiosity.
If you can see personal evolution and growth as the point of living, then change and uncertainty lose their sting. In Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, Beau Lotto writes about the importance of a diverse set of experiences to keep us flexible and creative, rather than being trammelled by the train tracks of convention. If we can let go of attachment to specific versions of the future, we open up vast new realms of possibility. If we can surf the waves of change, rather than being capsized by them, we can see further and navigate more strategically. When we interpret unpredictability as fuel, rather than fear, it becomes a catalyst for transformation.
It may not be true that life will never give you more than you can handle, but it’s a helpful narrative. By choosing to believe it, we develop faith in our own resilience and resourcefulness to cope with whatever comes.
I learned this on the Atlantic, when it seemed that I was clobbered by one challenge after another – tendinitis in my shoulders, saltwater sores on my bottom, all four oars breaking before I reached halfway, broken GPS, stereo, and camping stove, and finally losing all comms when my satphone stopped working – not to mention storms and high seas for much of the crossing. It was the epitome of unpredictability.
But as time went on, I noticed a pattern emerging. It felt like a gradual ramping up of the challenges. I would have just adapted to one reality when my situation would change again. It was as if the ocean was setting me a well-designed crash course in personal development, calibrated to constantly stretch me but not break me.
So I now see life’s challenges as a series of lessons, stepping stones on the way to a more actualised version of myself. As with so many things, if you can’t change the outer reality, then change your inner story about it – it makes all the difference.