About Rowan

Writer, journalist, advocate of discomfort.

The Discomfort of Uncertainty

Over the past few months a sense of anxiety has been growing within me. Politics on a world scale are being played out and decisions are being made with ramifications yet to be known.

Regardless of your politics the events of the world have triggered thoughts of uncertainty. Uncertainty is a form of discomfort which is essential to the human experience.

Much of my life has been plagued by some form of anxiety. From a young age I remember being engrossed in politics both at home and on the international stage. My mum vividly remembers my prediction of the war on terror as a then 11-year-old.

A key feature in my anxiety as an adult was the discomfort of uncertainty. As a child in a middle-class family my life was full of certainty. As children, much of our lives are out of our control – our parents and guardians make our decisions for us. Time goes by in an instant, they say, and then we find ourselves as adults.

As you hit adulthood, certainty leaves you as you move into the world and grow.

Uncertainty is a poisonous thing. The human mind desires certainty, which is of course, a hard thing to obtain in an uncertain world. Certainty demands a black and white answer.

We cannot function without the pursuit of certainty. No decision in life can be made without it. Crossing the street, what to eat, where to live…

Arie Kruglanski, born in Poland in 1938, coined the idea of cognitive closure in 1989. Put simply, Cognitive Closure is the need for certainty. Kruglanski was raised in a ghetto during the height of World War Two. In a video by the New York Times, filmmaker Daniele Anastasion recorded Mr Kruglanksi’s thoughts on uncertainty.

“What if I told you that your entire worldview has nothing to do with information or facts? Politics aren’t just a matter of judgement – People’s politics are driven by their psychological needs.

“People who are anxious because of the uncertainty that surrounds them are going to be attracted by the messages that offer certainty. The need for closure is the need for certainty. The need for closure is absolutely essential, but it can also be extremely dangerous.

“Nazi Germany arose in the aftermath of great uncertainty suffered by the German people. We all have the potential to become extreme. All of us has the potential to see things in black and white. That potential is hardwired in us. So why do we crave certainty so badly? The truth is, we literally could not function without out.”

What is different, is how we create certainty through decision-making. During times of uncertainty, we desire to make sense of things – to make a decision quickly. Our ancestors would have relied on this sense, this instinct, when hunting the plains, when warring with rival clans for resources. The pursuit of uncertainty – to overcome the discomfort it brings – challenged our ancestors to overcome obstacles in their evolutionary path.

As the world spirals towards mass information, and more importantly, misinformation, we seek for certainty in a complex world. The easiest way to do that, is to cling onto a certain stance – an ideology, a belief system, or an extremist view. When this complex world is made simple by an ideology, certainty is attained at the risk of a diminishing sense of humanity – the rise of fear which can quickly breed into racism, xenophobia, homophobia. What these things are, are a search for a scapegoat – a reason why people feel uncertain, and fearful. When simple answers arise for complex problems, things are sacrificed. In the video, Mr Kruglanski explains this decision-making process.

“Closure is the moment where you decide that enough information has been gathered and you are ready to make a decision. But the way we make decisions and process information changes dramatically in different circumstances.

“During times of great uncertainty everybodies need for closure increases. You feel the need to reach certainty more quickly. The need for closure tricks your mind to believe that you have the truth even though you haven’t examined the evidence very carefully.

“Sometimes you need certainty in order to act. When there is an extreme enemy that is threatening you, such as Nazi Germany, you need to fight fire with fire, you cannot fight fire with ambiguity and indecision.”

How can we tell what is the truth? How can we overcome uncertainty? There is no easy answer. That is what is so dangerous about uncertainty – when you dismiss other people’s opinions or dismiss information which is important to the decision-making process.

“That’s why we should be suspicious of our own righteousness.”

Embrace uncertainty. Perhaps we need to be mindful that an amount of trust needs to be placed in complexity because complexity can be viewed as the very thing which holds our universe together. Understanding complexity is a way to reach certainty in decision making. Ignoring complexity for what is easy or convenient is a certain path to ignorance and paying a price unforeseen.

How we deal with uncertainty is a skill which can be trained. Thinking critically, gathering information, assessing and being mindful can all aid us in approaching uncertainty.

Because certainty has a price.

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Say ‘Yes’

I stared above, deep into the sky. I watched waves of green and violet dance above me amongst a black sky littered with billions of stars. I laid there, on the frozen ocean. I felt it breath with the shift of waves. The ice was thick but you could hear it whine and crack with every shift of water. I was deep in the Canadian Arctic, watching the Northern Lights dance above me and I was cold.

Months earlier, home in subtropical Australia, a player in my own team had elbowed me in the head while at football training. I lay prone on the turf and my feet tingled. I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t sit up. My body simply would not move. While I lay on that field, I stared into the same sky I would stare at months later, but it was different. The flood lights shone brightly into my eyes that night. The moths flew above me like they were dancing. I wondered at the last time I looked upwards. It was like the sky was ignoring me. Of course it was. The sky, the moths, the stars, they would all continue to exist whether I was there or not. Though, It was like I was seeing it with new eyes. My injury had brought a kind of mindfulness to me. I took in the stars, the moths, the light, and I recognised it as beautiful. For it truly was beautiful in its complexity, simplicity and its ignorance of me.

Later that night, my view upwards would change. It morphed into a hospital ceiling and for 14 horrible hours, I stared at it. A few days after, I was diagnosed with an osteophyte on my C7 vertebrae – A bone spur which was impeding the nerve pathway down my spine and my right arm. The injury had aggravated the pathway and caused my symptoms. Luckily, they subsided, and perhaps luckier, it alerted me to the bomb inside my spine, which could one day blow if I am not careful.

Throughout my life I have always been injury prone. Though I have never broken a bone, I have torn ligaments, undergone surgery and endured reconstructions. I was teased relentlessly at high school for my injuries and absences from class. After a while, I realised I could learn something about myself from every injury.

My first true lesson was my knee reconstruction. It taught me the value of being able bodied in general and woke me up to the fact I was taking it for granted.

The next injury, my C7 vertebrae, taught me to appreciate it all over again. It was a wake up call in case I had forgotten the first lesson.

After my diagnoses I was told I should never play a contact sport again, and avoid any head injuries for fear the bone spur could wreak havoc with any nerves. At best, it may stay as it is and never impede me, at worst, I could lose use of my arm, or worse, my entire body. I sunk into a depression which I have often sunk into throughout my life. Football is my passion, even today, so to lose it was to lose something which gave me profound personal value.

After I lost it, I decided to make some decisions to try and separate me from the sadness. Rather than shying away from the possibilities of further injury, I wanted to get the most out of my body, myself and my life.

Each injury is a failure. It is a failure of body, but from this failure, your mind learns.

So I decided I would say yes – yes to every opportunity which presented itself.

This decision became a personal game, an experiment.

Saying yes took me on all sorts of adventures. It took me to drinks at bars with people I had only met in a university class a week earlier – some of which are now true friends. Yes got me into rock-climbing. Yes taught me to surf. Yes led me to help a friend create an outdoor adventure club on campus. Which in turn helped countless others say yes to getting outside. Yes, in all its simplicity, made me have fun.

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Yes – The word itself represents a risk and an opportunity – it’s a challenge to yourself.

Too often we shy away from something because of the perceived discomfort – we make excuses. We do this because we can in our modern society, because we have insulated ourselves from what we don’t like, or what makes us uncomfortable. To me, people who say no, are because they are scared of the discomfort, they are not innately weak, or lazy, they just haven’t learned to challenged themselves sufficiently. While I do think that is an incredible pity, I think there are little things people can do everyday to confront discomfort. I started to say yes because I was scared of doing so many things. I was frightened of being by myself, I was afraid of hurting myself. I had a giant fear of failing which had plagued me my entire life.

Saying yes forced me to do all of those things in one way or another. Once I had done them, once I been by myself, hurt myself, and failed. I realised that these were nothing to be afraid of.

Saying yes, is a little thing, which creates giant opportunities. It allows you to realise you have potential.

I sat on that frozen ocean because I had said yes in a chance encounter with a single man.

While studying, I was researching a story on a man who walked across Arctic Alaska and found a Canadian professor in residence at my university who specialised in Arctic research. I emailed him for a chat and nine months later I was shivering on the frozen ice, staring at the Aurora Borealis above me.
The same sky I had seen months earlier on the football field, replaced with an entirely different viewpoint.

Saying yes, allowed me to do that.

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Erebus

UNDATED -- Undated handout of the painting HMS Erebus in the Ice, 1846, by Francois Etienne Musin, 19th century. .  The 165-year-old ship's clock that was supposed to have been lost in the Canadian Arctic with the ill-fated Franklin Expedition has inexplicably surfaced in Britain.  HANDOUT PHOTO: © National Maritime Museum, London       For Randy Boswell (Canwest). 0925-franklin-ships

UNDATED — Undated handout of the painting HMS Erebus in the Ice, 1846, by Francois Etienne Musin, 19th century. . The 165-year-old ship’s clock that was supposed to have been lost in the Canadian Arctic with the ill-fated Franklin Expedition has inexplicably surfaced in Britain. HANDOUT PHOTO: © National Maritime Museum, London For Randy Boswell (Canwest). 0925-franklin-ships

Erebus. A deep darkness and shadow – a place between Earth and the underworld of Hades. Recorded in Greek mythology as a place of eternal suffering, a featureless and lightless world of terror.

I stood upon the waters of the infamous Northwest Passage. Gazing about me and struggling to recognise my way back to the hamlet of Ulukhaktok. The small Inuit township on Victoria Island, a place I called home for a period of several weeks.

The island sits to the north of the Northwest Passage, overlooking the famous stretch of water. The Inuit have long and detailed oral history of encounters with Europeans. Some rumoured meetings with survivors of polar expeditions, others, of uncovered graves. Wooden beams from uncovered ghost ships have also been scavenged and repurposed, most found as structural features in homes of industrious Inuit – heirlooms patched into the quilt of living history.

When I was young, I was captivated by tales of adventurers at the ends of the Earth. Pioneering men seeking discomfort far away from home. Each seeking their own fate and fortune. One such tale stuck with me.

A tale of men who wandered for days on end. Taking shelter behind formations of solid ice, thrust up from the sea. Hunkered and huddled together to avoid the stinging and deathly bite of the arctic wind. Faces gnarled and twisted from frostbite, barely recognisable. Their thoughts no longer coherent and logical. They were doomed in an alien world. Leaving their stricken ships behind, they took their chances on finding land. The small chance of salvation. Some of them resisted, but eventually they all succumbed to the cold and were taken by the darkness.

In 1846, Sir John Franklin set off on the doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Under the command of Franklin, two ships set sail from England with a combined crew of 134. Near King William Island, deep in the Canadian arctic, the ships became engulfed in ice.

On April 22, 1848, 105 survivors left the ships in an attempt to reach solid ground on foot. None survived.

At the time of commission, the two vessels were labeled the “jewels in the crown of the royal navy” and specially equipped for arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Their thick hulls adept at cutting through sea-ice.

As the frozen ocean hemmed the expedition in, the ice stops the ships in the path. Both vessels were slowly broken apart and sunk to the sea bottom. Forever frozen in purgatory between Earth and hell.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

The script, written by the poetic hand of fate, could not have been any more perfect.

I could not help to think of Franklin during my time in Ulukhaktok. The man himself was endlessly fascinating. I first came across his name while talking to the locals themselves. Over hot tea and bannick, a fried bread dough, an Inuit elder told me the story of Franklin’s first foray into the Arctic – his 1819 expedition to chart the north coast of Canada, just south, across the Northwest Passage from Ulukhaktok.

Franklin’s mission was to chart the area eastwards from the mouth of the Coppermine River. Franklin lost 11 of his 20 men, as well as almost drowning himself. Most died of starvation caused by a lack of proper planning. Blaming deserted and unstocked outposts for their predicament, the survivors were forced to eat lichen. Suggestions of at least one murder and even cannibalism sullied Franklin’s name. To add insult to injury he was even bestowed the moniker of “the man who ate his boots”.

Following his failed Canadian expedition, Franklin was then appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) from 1837 to 1843. At the time, he was considered unpopular because of his progressive views towards the penal colony and the treatment of prisoners. He allegedly wanted to make life for convicts more humane, which did not sit well with the aristocracy.

His history of doomed command never played against him. His command of Erebus sealed his fate, and that of his men.

Like Franklin, the arctic is a complete contrast and list of contradictions. It is simple and yet infinitely complex and ever-changing. The ultimate frontier of human existence, balancing on the edge of the proverbial knife.

As beautiful as you can envisage and as unforgiving as you could imagine. The arctic gives reluctantly with one hand and freely takes with the other. The indigenous people who call this region home have perfectly honed their skills to the environment. Living and thriving where Europeans struggled for centuries.

I stood upon the frozen North-west Passage and thought of Franklin’s doomed expedition. My gaze wandered from the frozen ocean to the island itself. The clouds of snow lazily drifted across the jagged cliffs. Walls of rock eroded and carved from millennia of tidal ice. Beautiful in their simplicity and captivating in their complexity. The endless chiseling by solidified water, hacking and grinding away at compacted earth have created the perfectly imperfect artwork. An immovable object endlessly meeting an irresistible force – the battleground between land and sea. The ocean receding and then returning. Retreating and then attacking. Gnawing and chewing. The rock, providing staunch defence against wave upon wave of never ending attacks. A timeless war waging for eternity. Slowly, the clouds engulf the walls and hide them from view. Their dark silhouettes give way to a deep and endless white horizon. Just like that, it seems like the world had rested and taken a pause from its creation. The world took a sigh and an inhale all at once. Then a long held breath which seemed to go on and on.

In that moment time ceased to exist. I slowly filled my own aching lungs with frigid oxygen. All that is left in the world is my breath and me. The road home disappeared and my mind shrouded just like the walls of rock which once surrounded me, now unseen and hidden from view. As alone as a single dark dot on a plain white page.

Acutely aware of myself, my senses seemed to both increase and go numb at the same time. A surreal and dreamlike sensation. I couldn’t tell what caused the chill down my spine. The layers of insulated clothing kept me warm but also insulated from sensing the environment. There was a fierce wind but I couldn’t feel it, and at some point it stopped completely. I was there, but I was far away, all at once. I was seeing everything from behind my own eyes – a complete and perfect contradiction. The closest thing I could describe to an out-of-body experience.

The long nights all string together to become one endless period of darkness. The world outside is frozen in both motion and temperature. At first glance there is no life and no sound – an environment of stillness. A world of contrasts which at one moment seems dead and lifeless, then the next, chaotic and fierce. As hostile as one can imagine. A place of blinding brightness and terrifying darkness.

Erebus and Terror were named by their naval commissioners to rain shells of explosive armament down on their enemies during the Napoleonic era. However, the ships names seemingly doomed them and their crew to a featureless world of darkness.

The men were deserted in an alien environment. The clouds drifted in and engulfed the crew of the expedition. Clouds gathered about them and slowly stole the world from view. The light eventually giving way to shadows, and then to complete darkness.

With a sigh and a breath, all at once, Erebus took the men from this world and bound them to mythology.

Discomfort

For a while now I have been formulating a theory – that when you are tested through adversity, you become better.

I call this the theory of discomfort.

What I mean by this, is when you experience some kind of discomfort, you learn about yourself, you surprise yourself with your ability to cope and more often than not, overcome fear and weakness.

Now I hate preachy stuff, but this is something I have begun to truly believe and I have done so through experiencing it myself. From my experience in research in the arctic, to public speaking in front of over 200 people. Each of this uncomfortable experiences make you better and I believe we should all seek discomfort and its benefits.

As part of this, a good friend of mine, Bree Stewart, has chosen to join me in a charity bike ride from Adelaide to Uluru in September. Our goal is to raise awareness and funds for mental health and the charity, Beyondblue. It is also to help me regain fitness after three torn ankle ligaments as well as giving us some much needed discomfort. You can view (and perhaps donate) our charity donation page here. 

Neither of us have much road riding experience beyond riding to work. We have a lot of work to do to get the endurance into our legs but we are very positive.

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Along with this theory of discomfort and my passion for adventure and journalism, I will be launching a blog and online magazine later this year. Discomfort magazine will be all about promoting mental health, personal development, conservation and appreciation for nature through adventure, physical experience outdoors and a little risk taking. A little wordy, but it is basically aimed at getting people outdoors and back to nature, as I believe it is good for the mind and soul. Stay tuned for it.

National Geographic explorer and photographer Cory Richards, a personal hero of mine, explains this theory and his personal story.