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Do we know how to live in uncertainty?


Published in

Diario de Navarra

Gerardo Castillo

Professor School of Education and Psychology

The many distressing news items that continue to reach us every day from covid-19 usually leave us in a state of bewilderment and bewilderment. They are less surprising to those who know that there is nothing new under the sun and that major epidemics have been a constant throughout history. Some are relatively recent, such as cholera in the 19th century, which claimed 10 million human lives. I believe that we should not be mere spectators who lament the tragedy. It is better to light a match than to cry out against the darkness. The pandemic puts us at test, impels us to make a virtue out of necessity, urges us to rethink ourselves and to know that "the change we wish to see in the world must be made by ourselves" (Gandhi). 

Most people are concerned about catching the coronavirus because of its biological subject effects, but not because of the psychological and spiritual subject effects, which can be of equal or greater importance. I will not speak on this occasion of pathological fear, but of the state of uncertainty, which is a lack of security and certainty.

The authorities point us to a protocol to prevent a possible contagion, but in spite of complying with it, we still have many doubts. Talking about it with other people often increases these doubts, depending on whether they are optimistic or pessimistic, fearful or brave, young or old, etc. At the same time and in the same place, some people lock themselves up at home, while others go for a walk and drink coffee on the terraces of bars. One of the errors that feeds uncertainty is to believe that it has no expiration date, that it is forever.

Seeing things beyond our control makes us feel vulnerable. It also changes our hierarchy of values: the first is now health linked to safety, while the last is money linked to wealth. History repeats itself: after the devastating plague of Athens in 430 BC, the historian Thucydides wrote that the Athenians suddenly discovered that "their lives and wealth were ephemeral".

We all need a minimum of certainty, but it makes no sense to aspire to total certainty, and even less so in today's society of change. A certain dose of uncertainty and risk gives interest and novelty to our work and, in general, to our life.

There is a form of negative uncertainty that is nurtured by thoughts about events that have not occurred and we tend to increase it with alarming assumptions about the future. Contributing to this is the large number of warning signals we receive from the outside.

The opposite feeling to uncertainty is certainty. But it is convenient not to be satisfied with what is certain, without aspiring to what is true. Certainty is the certainty experienced when affirming or denying something. It is an affective state. On the other hand, the truth of knowledge is adequacy between intelligence and reality. It is a cognitive state. In some cases, what we hold to be true may also be true, but not in others. The challenge to accept the unpredictable with serenity requires psychological effort, flexibility and resilience. The latter is the ability to react with initiative and decision in the face of an unfavorable change in our life, managing to reverse the status. Survival strategies are based on the understanding that mutual support is essential. Therefore, if we wish to face the multiple challenges that the pandemic implies for public health, it is core topic to rely on ethical and civic values. We must all be responsible, empathetic and supportive.

Solidarity implies fraternity, empathy and understanding. Empathy is the capacity that allows us to grasp the affective state of other people: what they feel and for what reasons. Carl Rogers calls it empathic understanding: seeing things as the other person sees them, which requires "putting oneself in their shoes".

Such values must emerge in every citizen against the backdrop of a social environment contaminated by "egoism" and individualism, two forms of self-centeredness that prevent empathy with the suffering of others. Selfishness" manifests itself, above all, in talking endlessly about oneself, including self-quotations: "as I usually say...". Individualism means going about one's own business. George Thibon affirms that in today's society there is an enclosure of individuals and an indifference to others. It is what Paul Valery called "the multiplication of solos."