Living With Uncertainty and Fear

As last week was coming to an end, I felt myself getting more and more impatient and irritated. I could tell something was wrong – but wasn’t quite sure what. When I saw a clip of Michelle Obama’s interview with Oprah, what she said really hit home, “We feel the difference now. See, now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like.” I’m one of those people who is hard-wired for optimism. So feeling hopeless makes me very cranky.

Reading something Neil Strauss wrote back in October helped me go a bit deeper in understanding what was going on. His article is titled, “Why We’re Living in the Age of Fear.” Strauss points out that our politics seems to be driven by fear – even though, “most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history.”

Because, according to [Barry] Glassner, “we are living in the most fearmongering time in human history. And the main reason for this is that there’s a lot of power and money available to individuals and organizations who can perpetuate these fears.”

For mass media, insurance companies, Big Pharma, advocacy groups, lawyers, politicians and so many more, your fear is worth billions. And fortunately for them, your fear is also very easy to manipulate. We’re wired to respond to it above everything else. If we miss an opportunity for abundance, life goes on; if we miss an important fear cue, it doesn’t.

He goes on to provide us with some information about a part of our brain called the amygdala, which is the home of our emotional responses, specifically fear. But in talking to neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, Strauss learns that what we’re talking about isn’t actually fear.

“What we’re talking about is anxiety, not fear,” LeDoux says. Where fear is a response to a present threat, anxiety is a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future. “It is a worry about something that hasn’t happened and may never happen,” says LeDoux…

This may seem like a small distinction. But in actuality, it is everything. Because where fear is about a danger that seems certain, anxiety is, in LeDoux’s words, “an experience of uncertainty.”

And that uncertainty is the exact lever that politicians regularly use to try to influence your behavior.

This started making a lot of sense to me. Since the election, we’ve spent a lot of energy trying to figure out what a Trump administration is going to look like. Everything we see looks ominous. But we’ve still got a month go to before he’s even inaugurated.

Strauss goes on to explore the way we tend to react to that kind of uncertainty.

If there is a crack in human psychology into which demagogues wriggle, it is by offering psychological relief for the anxiety created by uncertainty. Because when people are unsure – or made to feel unsure – and not in control of the safety of their finances, families, possessions, community or future, their natural inclination is to grasp for certainty.

This is where a good scapegoat comes in. “That’s something Trump creates very well: There’s us – real Americans – then there are Muslims and immigrants,” Bader says. “Fascist governments have risen in times of economic change because they offer simple answers to complicated personal questions. And one of the most popular ways people can have certainty is by pointing to a villain to blame things on.”…

“A conspiracy theory,” he continues, “brings order to a disordered universe. It’s saying that the problems aren’t random, but they’re being controlled by a villainous group.”

It’s big banks. It’s ISIS. It’s the environmentalists. It’s the NRA. It’s Wall Street. It’s the patriarchy. It’s the feminists. It’s the right. It’s the left. It’s the Illuminati. Choose a single enemy and simplify your life – but know that it won’t make you any happier.

The irritation I was feeling last week was the beginning of my attempt to find a villain to blame for my uncertainty and fear. Strauss goes on to talk about how, once that process is engaged, it leads to heightened levels of aggression. Perhaps that explains the finger-pointing going on these days on the left between those arguing about  economic populism vs and identity politics. We’re all feeling uncertain and that leads us in search of someone to blame.

All of this reminds me of when I was the executive director of a small nonprofit as we began to see the Great Recession unfold. Those kinds of financial crises hit small organizations like ours, a good one to two years after they impact the overall economy. So we knew that bad times were going to come and lived in that uncertainty for months. Eventually I realized that all the worrying I was doing about the future would change nothing. I also had enough experience as an executive director to be confident that when the challenges actually hit, we would do what we always did…roll up our sleeves and deal with it. That simple awareness saved my sanity.

Here is what Strauss recommends:

Researchers in LeDoux’s lab cite a phenomenon related to uncertainty: agency – your capacity to exert your own power on your environment. “The world is how you assess it,” Moscarello summarizes. “It’s your belief about your agency that ultimately determines your emotional outcomes.” Believing you don’t have control over your own life can lead to depression, he continues, while believing that you have a voice and can influence a situation can lead to positive feelings.

Of course, rather than grasping for control and certainty, one could, as University of Pittsburgh sociologist Kerr puts it, “learn to have a degree of acceptance around uncertainty and ambiguity, learn to feel comfortable with change, and seek to understand things you may be afraid of rather than withdrawing from them.”…

The goal, however, is to separate real threats from manufactured ones. And to find a balance where we are not so scared that we’re making bad decisions that hurt us and our freedom, but not so oblivious that we aren’t taking steps to protect ourselves.

If we are to address the very real and numerous problems facing the country and the world today, we must do so without fear and anxiety, but with our heads clear and a sense of compassion for everyone, not just the people who look like or agree with us.

I still feel uncertain about what the future will bring. But I also know that as it unfolds, I’m prepared to roll up my sleeves and get to work. That’s when the worrying stops and the path forward becomes clear.

P.S. If you are interested in taking this journey into our uncertain future with all of us here at the Washington Monthly, I’d ask you to consider making a tax deductible contribution to help us keep the lights on. We’re all in it together!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.