Staring down the barrel

Three words you spend your entire life trying to conquer.

Doubt. Fear. Uncertainty.

The crafting of habits. The development of rituals and practice. The constant planning, listing, ordering, sorting and arranging. You shove those words in a box. You seal it up. And you hide it away in the darkness hoping that you never have to see it again.

It doesn’t work.

The uniquely human tendency to fight those three words is summarised concisely by Robert Greene: “The need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces.” And it is just that, a disease. Most diseases are either curable or potent enough to knock you off. This one? Incurable and never quite strong enough to put an end to your misery. Necessity dictates we find a way to handle our affliction.

One remedy is found in Gates of Fire, a historical novel which tells the story of the 300’s heroic stand at Thermopylae. The warrior Dienekes taught his student Xeo that to conquer these words doesn’t require courage, nor the cultivation of fearlessness, nor the threat of dishonor, shame or defeat. It needs a force far stronger. Love.

The love of things that should terrify you, events that should make you cower, is an old idea. The Stoics emphasised this attitude and, two thousand years later, Friedrich Nietschze immortalised it in Ecco Homo: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary – but love it.”

This love of fate can only occur when you welcome, when you embrace what happens to you, whether good or bad. It is a conscious act. Instead of turning your back, you must acknowledge the challenge your situation presents and the opportunity it has served up to you.

Your happiness will increase in concert with your capacity to accept and work with doubt, fear and uncertainty. Or in the words of Nassim Taleb, your ability to love volatility. They are an absolute certainty in everyone’s existence. If we cannot learn to love them, we must learn to live with them.

Richard Feynman, an irreverent physicist who spent his life challenging assumptions and questioning accepted knowledge, had this to say:

“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…
I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”

When faced with doubt, our instinct is to combat it with vows of certainty and assurance. When confronted with fear, our reaction is to shrink and modify our actions to avoid it. When staring down the barrel of uncertainty, we panic. But our instincts don’t always align with our best interests.

Practice disregarding them. Take a deep breath and charge contrary to where they are begging you to go

Three words to spend your entire life trying to love. Doubt. Fear. Uncertainty.