The man who eliminated uncertainty

What would happen if the future was certain?

Gift box with uncertainty tag

There was once a man who lived in perpetual anxiety. Every day, as he awoke, he would plan his day in great detail. And every day, some unexpected development would upset his plans. No matter how meticulously he planned, he just couldn’t eliminate the uncertainty.

One day, his anxiety reached epic proportions and he couldn’t take it any longer. So he decided to undertake a rigorous tapasyā [penance], in order to invoke God and ask for a favour. To his delight, he succeeded and God appeared before him, and granted him a wish. The man said, “O God, please grant me 100 per cent certainty in life.” “Are you sure?” God said, “Do you know what you’re asking for?” “Yes!” said the man. “Very well then, tathaastu [So be it]”, declared the Lord, before departing. The man was overjoyed. “Wow! I can finally live without anxiety. My life is now free of all risk—no more unpleasant or unwanted surprises,” he thought.

Yet, hardly a week went by when the man began to have doubts about his newfound boon. Ever since God had granted him his wish, his life became thoroughly predictable. Every day he awoke knowing how his day will proceed and how it will end. He now knew exactly how everything will unfold, day after day, month after month, year after year. Granted, there were no risks; but there was no excitement either. His life became dreary and tiring—a heavy burden that he would have to carry forever. What was the point of living such a life, he thought. It was as if he was watching a movie for the first time, but knew beforehand every scene and every dialogue, even the climax and the end. In time, he stopped enjoying his life altogether and started longing for the wonder that unpredictability brought. He realised that what he had asked for was not a boon but a curse.

We love comfort zones

In differing degrees, the story above is our story. Uncertainty freaks us out. We love comfort zones—where everything is under our control [or at least we believe it is]. We make elaborate plans to de-risk our lives as much as possible. We even go to astrologers to predict our future. Such is our dislike for uncertainty that we often pass off great opportunities in fear of a doubtful outcome. In short, we try our best to eliminate uncertainty from our lives as much as possible, all the time aware that it’s impossible to do so.

But uncertainty is the greatest gift of life. If everything was certain, life would lose its meaning. The word ‘chance’ can mean either risk or opportunity. Life is a chance. Its beauty and potential lie in its unpredictability.

And no matter how much we plan, an element of unpredictability will always be there. So, does that mean we should never plan? Of course not! There’s merit in planning. But when we expect our plans to get rid of all uncertainty, we’re going against life itself. Besides, our anxiety comes not from the uncertainty itself but from our insistence that there be no uncertainty.

Once we accept uncertainty as a given, all anxiety drops away and the texture of life becomes richer. Every day we awaken not knowing what life will bring to us and revel in that mystery. Sometimes it will be pleasant and sometimes not. Some days our plans will work, some days they won’t. But that’s what makes life so much fun—and makes it meaningful.

Looking deeper, we could say that the real cause of suffering is not being able to tolerate uncertainty—and thinking that it’s perfectly sane, perfectly normal, to deny the fundamental groundlessness of being human.” — Pema Chödrön
Pin it! » Pema Chödrön on Uncertainty

A version of this article first appeared in the November 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
Last Updated on: 19 November 2018

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Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri is a highly experienced wellbeing consultant. He is also a writer-editor and has written on topics ranging from strategic marketing and business management to art, culture and even philosophy. His more than 1250 published stories—articles, interviews, full-length features—have appeared in some of the leading newspapers and magazines of India. A certified cognitive behavioural therapist, he works as a personal counsellor too. He is the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed self-improvement book based on powerful ideas of some of the greatest thought leaders. Manoj runs Complete Wellbeing and believes that "peace begins with me".


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