The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.

—Tove Jansson, Moominland Midwinter

Getting lost is no longer a problem. Suspect you’ve wandered off down the wrong street, and you might whip out a smartphone, tap a screen and find your location via satellite. There are apps that tell us whether a train is delayed. Websites that predict which films or books we’ll enjoy. With a proliferation of new technologies, it may seem as if there’s less and less need to leave things to chance. But sometimes we might wonder what we’re missing out on.

Uncertainty is often characterized as an unpleasant emotional experience, one we are motivated to avoid. Feeling doubtful at life’s biggest junctions can be hard to tolerate. No amount of Googling can tell us whether to quit our jobs or have a child (see: TORSCHLUSSPANIK). Instead, we’re flung back and forth between scraps of advice, our indecision leaving us claustrophobic and irate. No wonder that a desire to overcome uncertainty, by creating dependable structures, is thought to give humans an evolutionary edge.

Yet, though predictability temporarily salves us, hesitations and doubts are part of the architecture of our lives. At some time or another all of us will struggle with the fact that our future is uncertain. Even the most advanced theoretical physicists can’t give us answers. According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, it’s impossible to know both the size and mass of a particle at any one time, since each time you try to measure one, the other changes. If this is the condition of our subatomic universe, you can bet it’s the condition of our day-to-day lives too: “Should I buy the tomatoes? But then I’ll have to have the cauliflower too. But does she like cauliflower?” etc.

Freedom, serendipity, whimsy, creativity: these are the delights of uncertainty. Not knowing an outcome can be immensely pleasurable—it’s why we keep reading murder mysteries, and why the first rush of a love affair is particularly intense. According to many artists, the desire to find out must be resisted: it’s not knowing that is more valuable. Only those “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason,” wrote the poet John Keats, are truly free to create and explore.

Allow yourself to get lost, and you might glimpse that freedom too.