I was changing my grandson’s diaper last week. The little guy is 8 months old and is, as his onesie says, bald, unemployed and still living with his parents. So changing him is something we do a lot. And changing is something he does a lot.
One day he loves butternut squash, the next day no. For a few months he sleeps great, then he’s up every hour. The favorite toy one week is tossed aside the next. Sometimes if I don’t see him for several days, his features have changed so that I hardly recognize his sweet little face. I tell my daughter, if there is one thing that’s predictable, it’s that nothing is predictable.
And it’s not just baby caretaking. Life is unpredictable on a daily basis. We walk out to the car to find a flat tire. We run into a long lost friend in an airport. We win the lottery or lose a wedding ring. As much as we humans crave predictability, we can’t control the events in our lives. What’s more, life tends toward disorder.
Not that I know anything about the laws of thermodynamics, but in a closed system, things tend toward randomness and chaos. It’s called entropy and it means that left to its own devices, my garden will fall into a weedy, overgrown tangle of decay over time. It’s the reason we have to keep cleaning our houses and mowing our lawns. Things naturally fall apart so we have to keep putting energy into keeping them together.
All this has the potential to make us anxious.
Our brain doesn’t like uncertainty and we are hard-wired to resist it. Research shows that facing an uncertain outcome is more stressful than facing a predictable negative outcome. So as kooky as it sounds, wondering whether I’m going to get fired is more stressful than knowing I will be fired.
We lean in toward certainty, even uncomfortable certainty, because the status quo is less threatening than the unfamiliarity of the unknown. We prefer things we know over new or unusual experiences, even ones that will enrich us, because they evoke uneasiness. We settle in comfortably with predictable patterns and habits because it’s so hard to confront change.
Change involves letting go. Letting go evokes fear. Whereas certainty feels satisfying, change feels like pain to be avoided. It’s easier to stay with what we’re accustomed to rather than leap into the unknown and face risk, even though these risks may provide opportunities.
This is not to say that certainty or predictability is unwarranted. It’s essential for society to function properly. We need to be able to depend on certain things occurring routinely like drivers stopping at red lights, trash being collected weekly, and water coming out of the tap each day. (At least in America that’s what we expect.) Routine and consistency provide us a familiar kind of security so we can move through our days with some ease.
Dogs generally behave like pets and not predators, and the sun comes up every day. We are comforted when McDonalds French fries taste exactly the same each time we visit. We like getting back on a schedule after the holidays or a long trip. Predictability is the balm that lubricates each day’s journey.
So here’s our conundrum.
We crave predictability, yet we must live in an unpredictable world where change is thrust upon us. David Bowie tells us in his song “Changes” to turn and face the strange. That’s about as instructive a guide as any to embrace the capricious nature of life with its perplexing, unexpected and sometimes extraordinary events. Turn and face.
That’s what my little guy does, turn and face his ever-changing world. He tackles each day with wide-eyed curiosity, delighting in every strange experience. He eagerly scrutinizes each new object and investigates its taste and texture with a wide open and slobbery mouth. He fearlessly attempts to navigate a body he can’t yet control and takes a risk each time he tries to stand. Life is a fascinating experiment for him. He’s my real life tutorial on embracing unpredictability.
Things are destined to change and fall apart. It’s inevitable, but we can approach it with humor and curiosity. Our minds are flexible and can be trained to thrive in change. Realizing that it is an inherent part of life helps us maintain equilibrium in the dance between predictability and unpredictability. So with an open mind (and an open mouth) launch fearlessly into the challenges of the day.
Mary Petersen is a retired COC English instructor, a 30-year SCV resident and a senior citizen newbie.