I have a very mundane superpower. I always know if I haven’t finished my piece of toast or have not drunk the last mouthful of a cup of tea, even if I have mislaid either.
I often eat breakfast on the trot, endeavouring to mistakenly multi-task. So often I will take my tea or toast with me as I stuff a washing machine, pair some socks or look for child’s mislaid shoe. And even if I am down to my last bite of toast that I have haphazardly balanced somewhere, or I have a single slurp of tea left in a cup that I have lost in the tread of domesticity, I know - somewhere in my mind- that something is unfinished. Which means I can reliably retrace my footsteps and find it, always with a sense of disproportionate satisfaction that comes not just from knowing my instinct was right, but with that last bite of anything.
In its simplest sense, this is an example of the Zeigarnic loop; the notion that unfinished tasks are better remembered than completed ones. It explains why it is impossibly difficult to get the attention of waiter in restaurant once they have served you your food and you’ve paid your bill. In their minds, you are a completed task, and they have busily moved on to the uncompleted ones. The notion has been used to devise strategies for better remembering things, with some psychologists even suggesting that regular interruptions to studying might help improve recall ( A fact -incidentally- that I am refraining from telling my teenagers).
But I am convinced that the concept also explains why uncertainty can be - for some- so difficult to live with. Because in a sense, uncertainty is an unclosed loop. It’s a question without an answer. Its a hypothesis without a conclusion. And as an interrupted thought form, it can take up residence in the mind, living there- like a stuck record- on its own merry loop. Why? What? How? When?, Why? What? How? When? etc etc
There is no doubt some people are better at living with uncertainly than others. I have always been terrible at it. My indecisive husband, on the other hand, seems frustratingly good.
For anyone who struggles with uncertainty, I believe there’s every chance that the situation we find ourself in might be proving especially tricky.
We are living with unprecedented levels of uncertainty and a constant news cycle that feeds into it. I have had many a discussion with friends where we have concluded that if we had an end date, a time line where normality got drawn into the sand, then we’d be better able to cope with it. At least it would be something to work towards. The loop might still be - as yet- unclosed but we’d find solace in knowing when the ends might meet.
Instead I have found myself regularly acting like some impatient person in a queue, constantly craning my head to see if I have edged closer to the front, only to slump when I feel I haven’t, or that worse still, that when I wasn’t looking a few more people queue barged and I found myself further away than I’d imagined.
And then sometimes I don’t feel like that. Sometimes, I stop craning. I stop refreshing the news, I stop thinking ahead, I stop making up spurious and pointless calculations based on population and vaccinations and case numbers, and instead I just take up residence in the day. And then- almost without fail- I feel better. I might focus on a rare blue sky, the newly fallen snow, the sound of rain outside my window or even far less poetically the task of feeding my children, or mopping a floor, lighting a candle or simply following the steady rhythm of a weekday and my attention draws in and the anxieties fall away. This honed focus, this attention to detail, this living with awareness of the smaller things enables us to more fully inhabit the world that is still available and thereby naturally resist any unfruitful attempt to prophesise or catastrophise. We can- as the unlikely guru Laim Gallagher counselled us once- just 'be here now'. And if ever there was a time that called for present moment living, then this time, when life is at its most uncertain, is probably it.
The truth is, we have no idea what might happen in this current future. But we do have some control over how we live in our present. Training in the art of staying focussed just on any singular day might prove a simple but possibly helpful state of mind in this moment. And because uncertainty is woven into the nature of things- we are always living on shaky ground just rarely see it in such stark relief- living a little more day by day could well prove a helpful tool to have developed, even when normality returns.
As the wonderful Puma Chodren says ‘ “The root of suffering is resisting the certainty that no matter what the circumstances, uncertainty is all we truly have.”
(Incidentally, her books Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change and her latest one Welcoming the Unwelcome seem to have 2020/2021 written all over them- I highly recommend them both).