When outcomes are unclear: reflections on finding contentment and hope in the midst of uncertainty

I often muse about how the 21st century seems to have led many of us – as individuals and within society – to become very attached to certainty of outcome. “So, what are our objectives for this project?” “What do we want to achieve from this initiative/meeting/policy?” Even yoga classes, personal coaching sessions, community initiatives nowadays seem to have wholeheartedly embraced the idea that an activity is largely pointless if you haven’t defined outcomes, or the key question that requires an answer, very clearly from the start. Almost as important as outcomes are questions like: “So how will we know if we’ve achieved our desired objectives?” “What will success look like?” and (sometimes the trickiest question, I think) “How will we measure success?”

(As a quick aside on the latter point, occasionally I wonder whether “Do we always necessarily need to be able to measure it?” might ultimately be the better question. Radical, I know. But that’s for another day, and another blog post.)

We have definitely come to like certainty: A clear view of the intended outcome, or if not the outcome itself, then ideally an informed guess at the possible outcomes. Incidentally, I think the ubiquity of the internet and the ever powerful behavioural effects of its ‘ask me a question, I’ll give you answers in less than a second as long as you’re on wifi/4G’ super-slickness has played a huge role in changing our mindsets to need (and usually obtain) a speedy answer to whatever question might have just popped into our heads.

Fear not – this won’t be a pitch for ridding ourselves entirely of objectives and outcomes! I am a pragmatist to the core: objectives, outcomes, a project framework that enables progress to be assessed (if not necessarily always in a quantifiable way) – of course these are very important in many contexts. And truth be told, as a civil servant and all-round geeky policy wonk, I am actually very fond of a clear outcome.

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That said, my experience of a rollercoaster year in 2015 when most things didn’t go to plan led me to discover a new appreciation for – and techniques for finding optimism within – situations where the outcome is uncertain, perhaps even completely unknown, or where we may feel we have little influence or agency over the outcome. Those situations can often be pretty testing and sometimes quite scary, when structure – all that one held to be just so, the way things are ­­– becomes tossed out and turned upside down.

I’ve written previously about the various ways I made sense of things not going to plan in 2015, and how I developed new habits – and cultivated long buried habits (such as a love for writing) – to look after myself, my wellbeing, my heart, my soul after my experiences of multiple miscarriages. I am pleased to say that those positive habits are now pretty well (re)established.

Nonetheless, like many of us I still find myself in situations of very real angst and uncertainty, when suddenly I hear my heart telling me to ‘tune up’ what I think of as my ‘go-back-to-basics’ antennae, or my ‘inner paperweight’ (more of the paperweight later).

The result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is the outcomes 2most recent (and probably the most heart-wrenching) such situation I have found myself in. I am not going to write in depth about my feelings on the referendum result itself – partly because (a) the result has made me very, very sad; and whilst my reflections in the couple of days since the result became known are what has prompted me to write this post, I want to focus on the ways I am trying to create a psychological space to feel optimistic and well and hopeful in the midst of the current gloom. This seems more nourishing of self, soul, family, and perhaps others around me too, than dwelling on the whys and what next of Brexit; and secondly (b) generally I steer clear of making public comment about political issues, because of my job.

Here is what my ‘back-to-basics’ antennae have started to remind me of in recent days.

  1. Most importantly, I try to look to the constants – the positive, soul-enhancing, life-enhancing and community-enhancing things (my non-technical catch all term for stuff like values and beliefs) which I hold most dear. *For me, these constants (alongside family and friends, which obviously are givens) are: laughter, singing, gentleness, openness, humility (especially in respect of any assumptions I might make unconsciously about other people’s perspectives), hospitality, creativity, curiosity, optimism, and kindness. And (humbly) also the idea of abundance – that all these things can be generated and passed on through each other – through connectedness, through respectful relationships, through community.
  1. Do all I can to live out these things every day – in every encounter, from the mundane minutiae of everyday (e.g. a sudden tetchy ‘we’re standing in each other’s way’ moment during the London commute) to the more serious comings-and-goings of my professional life, or groups of which I am a part.
  1. See the joy in doing simple things well. I think it can be easy to encounter an apparently well-trodden path and overlook its potential to bear nourishment for the soul. I was reminded of this at choir recently, when we stood to sing a well-known piece (Ave Verum Corpus, by Edward Elgar, for any choral geeks reading this). It can be easy to think ‘Oh we know this inside out, couldn’t we sing something just a bit more interesting/challenging.’ I confess I did think this, rather arrogantly I suppose, for a nano-second. But it’s an oft sung piece of music precisely because it is beautiful and, as it turned out, our rendition of Elgar’s gem was quite magical (in my humble, non-qualified opinion). We sang and stood as one, responsive to each other, finding new corners of the music and text which I, for one, had not noticed before. And it was utterly heart-warming…salve for the soul.
  1. Know and find the place that nourishes me and makes me feel safe, and rest there. But always keep the door ajar – to strangers, to different views, to the possibility of new experiences, to the uncertainty perhaps not being as scary as it currently feels.
  1. And always, know what prompts will reliably bring me back to a positive headspace when I’m wavering. A mental image – mine is that of a paperweight. Yes, I do actually visualise it, at a not-too-exact point between my heart and my tummy, and when I imagine it I feel centred and calm pretty quickly. Another way I’ve found very effective to return myself to the point of calm, ‘all will be well’ focus is through words. Not my own! But rather those favourite snippets of prose or (usually) poetry which instantly speak to my heart and make me smile. They return me to where I feel my ‘emotional core’ is. These will differ from person to person of course. (I am compiling a few my favourite poems or excerpts which I call on when things seem awry and will shortly post them on separate post.)

*I am mindful that the list at number 1 above probably reads as either a bit obvious or a bit trite (or both). Of course these things are rather ‘motherhood and apple pie’, but I think their importance can sometimes get a bit lost when things around us are testing us.

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I would love to hear about any readers’ tips for finding contentment when things go awry. Do comment below or follow me on Twitter.