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Speeches & Media

Uncertainty Is Part of the Human Condition

Embracing the unknown can give us the courage to move forward.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2022

This year’s Reunion was particularly meaningful. It marked the first time we welcomed alums back to campus since May 2019. It was also the first time we hosted a two-year Reunion—for the class of 2020, which, as you might recall, was sent home early in March 2020 when fear of COVID-19 gripped the nation and the world.

The class of 2020 missed many milestone moments—senior tea, baccalaureate, Commencement, Ivy Day, and more. This year, as the class marched across the stage in the Quadrangle to receive a special memento, older alums, including five who were celebrating their 75th Reunion, openly wept with joy for these young people.

So much has been written about the uncertainty that accompanied the pandemic. In my Ivy Day address, I shared my perspective that uncertainty is part of the human condition. As humans, we are hardwired to avoid uncertainty. There are now a series of psychological studies that have documented what at first might seem counterintuitive. Participants in lab studies experience less anxiety in a condition where they receive continuous mild shocks versus random mild shocks. In other words, certain shock is preferable to uncertain shock, even though it means more pain in the long run—that is how much we hate uncertainty.

Our preference for certainty evolved to help us avoid danger, and as such, it is adaptive. Our brains want us to survive, and so we search for a predictable, safe future. To reach this objective, we do our best to anticipate risks, so we can avoid them. For example, we look both ways before crossing the street, we cover electric outlets when there is a toddler in the house, we get annual physical exams, and so on.

Yet, we know many risks are outside of our control, as this two-line poem by Emily Dickinson makes clear. Dickinson asks:

In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much—how little—is within
our power

The first line grabs the reader’s attention. From a young age—as early as age 4—we are aware that death awaits us all. Still, Dickinson’s poem is jarring as she reminds us that life seems to pass in an instant.

Whenever we face our own mortality, we seek to know the unknowable. For example, people facing a difficult diagnosis want to know what the future holds; so do their loved ones.

Several years ago, an alum and former trustee of the college, Rachael Bartels ’88 found herself in this exact predicament after learning that she had breast cancer. In an essay about her experience, she wrote, “I learned that there are two ways of looking at life. You can embrace the cards you get dealt, or you can let them define you. I decided not to let breast cancer define me.”

There is such wisdom in Rachael’s words. She knew she could not control the outcome of her illness; however, she came to realize that she could control her response to it. This is the answer to Dickinson’s question, how much is within our power? We can control quite a bit; we can control how we respond to uncertainty.

Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist teacher and author, encourages us to welcome uncertainty because for her “not knowing is part of the adventure.” When I first read her words, I remember thinking that viewing not-knowing as an adventure is a tall order. Yet, as hard as it is, we must face the fact that we cannot always feel safe, comfortable or secure about the future.

Throughout our lives, we will still struggle with uncertainty because the essentials of human existence will include difficult and challenging events and circumstances. The poet David Whyte’s counsel is “to stay close to the way we are made.” He views the acceptance of our humanity—with all its hardships—as a courageous act.

So we love, even though we know we will sometimes lose the ones we love. We take risks, even though we know we will sometimes fail. We pray, even though it sometimes seems as though our prayers are not answered.

A challenge we all share throughout our lives—not only during a pandemic—is to find the courage to embrace uncertainty and to move forward. If we can accept the fact that living with uncertainty is part of the adventure, however hard this may be, perhaps we can lessen the shocks along the way.

Of course, there are some magnificent certainties in this life, so I decided to leave the class of 2020 with three truisms: As the song goes, love is all you need; meaningful work gives life purpose; and a college education lasts a lifetime. These three lessons resonated with them.

I also gave the class an opportunity to experience one more Smith tradition they missed out on—primal scream. Usually held on the night before final exams begin, this vital tradition gives students the opportunity to give voice, literally, to their unrestrained frustrations. When invited to do so at their two-year Reunion, the class of 2020 let out an exuberant yawp that would have made Walt Whitman proud.