How to Combat Uncertainty and Anxiety in an Uncertain and Anxious World: The antidote to complacency and chaos.

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
5 min read
Photo by Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash

Ignorance is bliss, they say. I knew a guy who must have been incredibly blissful. He lived in his own private Idaho. That inoculated him from worries and concerns about the state of the world and his place in it.

He would say things that sounded like Yogi Berra. He once said, mixing his metaphors, “I toot my horn to my own drum, my friend.” He said it like he was dispensing some deep, ‘I do it my way”-type, wisdom.

This guy is a work colleague of my best friend. I have met him. He is real, and he has become legendary in our pantheon of characters. My best friend and I laugh at his antics and the cautionary tale he represents. He represents living an unexamined life.

He brags about not having read a book since college. His ignorance is bliss attitude is like a turkey who leads a comfortable life right up to the week before Thanksgiving.

All this guy did was go through the motions. He was counting down the years until he could retire from his insurance job. He made good money and worked on Wall Street, but he was serving his time.

A year before he was eligible for retirement, his company fired him. A guy who he thought was a good friend at work gave him the news. It’s a cold world.

His firing started a cascade that toppled his house of cards fragility. The rug was pulled out from under him. The dominoes fell, and his strategy of skating through life was exposed. I feel sorry for him and wish him well.

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. But there are burdens to living the examined life. It’s in the fine print.

Those of us trying to live the examined life, carry the burden of wondering if we are fulfilling our destiny. We reflect, trying to decipher the meaning of our efforts and focus. We want purpose and meaning that is intrinsic and can’t be taken away by the whim of strangers.

I have focused on creating a free life. I am my boss and direct my efforts towards activities I feel drawn to by my curiosity and interests. It is a beautiful feeling. I cherish it and am full of gratitude.

Thoreau said a person is rich in proportion to the number of things they can afford to let alone. The latitude to not have to pursue obligations out of a concern for money is real modern freedom.

But this external freedom comes with responsibilities to one’s self that is masked when one has to do what others tell them. Self-awareness is like peeling an onion.

Eisenhower defined freedom as the opportunity to practice self-discipline. In an uncertain world, good habits and self-discipline create a haven of certainty. They combat complacency and chaos. Self-discipline is how we maintain and protect that freedom.

The next layer of the onion is then how do we remain sure that our habits and discipline are in the service of purpose and meaning.

Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Complete freedom can be a nightmare.

What do you call a nightmare that you experience while awake? A daymare? An anxiety attack?

One of my recurring ones is worrying that I might not be spending my time most productively. Maybe I am doing something that is not worth doing. I may be very productive and efficient but at the wrong task. Perhaps I have my ladder against the wrong wall.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Peter Drucker

We need internal reassurance that our external actions are not in vain.

Wewant to find some corners of life where we can exercise control and agency. We want to find peace. That peace comes from knowing we are doing our best in the service of our higher selves.

I want to expend my energies tasked at the highest and best uses of my time. Time is our most scarce resource. It’s the only thing we have. Doing one thing pre-empts doing other things, and there are opportunity costs of not doing the next best thing.

Life is a series of decisions. Most of our critical destiny-forming choices are mutually exclusive. We choose one, and all the other potentials and possibilities fall away.

Our resources are limited, especially our time. We have to choose wisely in allocating our time, energy, and effort.

At each decision branching node, we can have three options. We can make a good decision, a poor decision, or no decision.

Eugene Kleiner said, “The more difficult the decision, the less it matters what you choose.” Ponder that.

Ever wonder if you are spending your time on the highest and best use?

Find stillness in movement.

There is one area where I now notice that I have the peace and serenity of knowing I am engaged in an essential activity. That is exercise.

I have been using that feeling of certainty as motivation. Its the nudge I need to go out and do it. I want to share this with you because it might just help overcome the inertia of starting your regular exercise regimen.

I have found the hardest part of daily exercise is getting started. I have to overcome the internal chatter that is trying to dissuade me from the arduous task. My survival instincts don’t want me to be uncomfortable or waste valuable energy.

Surrendering to the certainty that daily exercise is beneficial both in the long and short run, I now embrace my oasis of activity.

I came to this obvious revelation while running.

Running gives me deep comfort, I recently realized, because I know while I am doing it that I am doing something of critical importance that I need to do every day. For that time, I can quiet any self-chatter that can disturb me and harsh my mellow.

The feeling I experience reminds me of something Keith Richards said in his autobiography. He finds his stillness on stage. He said that just before they go on, he says to Ron Wood, “Now we can get some peace and quiet.” All the superficial concerns fall away, and he can find solace in the moment. That has stuck with me, and I try to seek out similar peace in the flow of activity.

That is the big take-away. That feeling of certainty can provide the needed nudge to do it and reap the benefits. It helps build the habit and supports the self-discipline. Everything gets aligned for that time.

So just do it. Go out and toot your horn to your own drummer, my friend.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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