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Finding Stability in an Anxious World

How to grow rather than shrink in uncertain times.

Key points

  • How humans cope with uncertainty will be a central question for the 21st century.
  • Understanding and applying two ancient Jewish words for fear—Yirah and Pachad—could help us navigate this challenge.
  • With some mental effort, a changing landscape can be a thrill rather than a nightmare.

Listening to my clients recently, many of us seem to be suffering from one pronounced emotion: the sense of being overwhelmed by the level of uncertainty and sheer pace of change in the modern world.

We looked forward to the lifting of lockdown and the restoration of freedoms, but we’ve emerged blinking into the light to be hit by a bunch of new challenges in a world that feels more uncertain than ever.

Old expectations of perpetual online meetings clash with new demands to be physically present. Financial instability and risks of further restrictions make planning impossible. Huge parts of our lives feel totally up in the air. It’s no wonder that our latest report found that 40 percent of people will miss lockdown life.

How humans cope with the uncertainty and the seemingly perpetual "chaos" around them will, I believe, be the central question for people in the 21st century, influencing both our mental well-being but also how our societal politics evolve.

Ancient wisdom could help guide us here as these problems are not as new as we think they are. For example, I turned to some Old Testament Jewish texts for guidance. Unlike English, Hebrew has two words for fear: Yirah and Pachad.

Pachad is characterised by dread in the face of uncertainty. It’s what many of us are feeling right now. Human beings are wired to appreciate stability, and it’s natural for many of us to respond to turbulence by denying it, being uncontrollably buffeted by it, or trying to fight it. Too often it’s a futile attempt to evade the need to adapt.

Yirah is different. It describes the sense of awe we can derive from something fearful. It’s about opening ourselves up to the opportunities that can come with change, rather than shrinking away from them. It’s about finding agency and a positive purpose in a world that can’t be controlled, but can be navigated.

Imagine approaching the top of a rollercoaster. Responding with Pachad would mean squeezing our eyes tight shut and clawing on with white knuckles trying to prevent the impending plummet. Responding with Yirah, on the other hand, would mean opening our eyes wide and raising our arms high as we let go, beaming with excitement.

Matt Bowden/Unsplash
Source: Matt Bowden/Unsplash

Of course, many of us would prefer the latter response to our own personal life rollercoasters. But the question many of my clients ask is—how do I actually go about getting there?

There is no silver bullet that I can offer in a short blog. But there are some key questions I’d advise you to quietly reflect on that might start to help shift your mindset:

  • Is my reaction to the pandemic and the sheer uncertainty of the modern world in line with Yirah or Pachad?
  • What opportunities could now be open to me if I approached the uncertainty swirling around me with a positive mindset of working with rather than opposing change?
  • What do I need to create a sense of agency in the face of the forces that buffet me?

Anxiety in the face of uncertainty is a natural, human reaction. According to social psychologist Geert Hofstede, "uncertainty avoidance" is one of the six dimensions that define the psychology of any nation.

We can’t eradicate change, but we can make an effort to cultivate it into something more universally and personally fulfilling. Rather than deny it, we can use it as a chance to find more sources of meaning in our lives. This is no easy task—and for many with significant economic or social barriers, it is much harder—but it is possible. Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

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