How To Live With Uncertainty – Two Coping Strategies That Could Change Your Life

Living in uncertainty is not an expat privilege. how to live with uncertainty

Anyone may get a cold, be fired or lose a loved one tomorrow without notice. Life is unpredictable.

But the expat existence, linked to high mobility and often tied to the dictate of global companies and fast changing economic conditions, entails a heightened number of unknowns to manage.

Will your visa be renewed?

In which country will you move to next?

When will you get your working permit?

Should you invest time and energy in building relationships with people who are as nomadic as you are?

Where is your child going to study?

Should you start to learn the local language or improve your English/French/Spanish for the next posting?

Living in another country and depending on your partner and their employer, gives you good reasons to struggle with uncertainty. Your choices as a trailing spouse become narrower and narrower.

You feel stuck, caught, trapped. In jail. With no idea when you are set free.

Our Western society places high value on money, career and social advancement. So, being deprived of the ways to acquire them can feel sheer torture.

All the more that you’ve been brought up with the firm belief that you have control on your life.

If you’re not successful — according to the above criteria — you may think it’s your fault.

And this can cause a lot of anxiety, stress, guilt and shame.

So how can you cope?

There are numerous methods to help alleviate the pain of anxiety and stress. Breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, meditation, journaling are but a few. But remaining at this level means treating the symptoms and not tackling the cause.

To continue further, I’ll need to engage your imagination.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that you’re on another planet.

On this planet, living a good life means laughing, playing and connecting meaningfully with others.

Money doesn’t exist and there is food and shelter in abundance for everyone.

The main belief is: ‘Your fate is written the day you’re born. There’s nothing you can do about it.’

Can you picture the situation? How do you feel?

 

I bet you’re much more relaxed, right?

This little experiment suggests that…

The underlying cause of our torments (stress, anxiety, guilt and shame) can be found in our spiritual beliefs, our values and our worldview.

 

Because uncertainty is the gist of life, let’s have a look at how we’ve dealt with it in history before the advent of science and reason tried to explain and master the world.

Basically, I found two approaches that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. They can be complementary. 

The first approach is finding solace in surrendering to an external authority.

 

This is typically — but not limited to — the adherence to one of the three religions: Christianity, Judaïsm and Islam.

You believe in an external authority that knows better than yourself: God, Allah, Yahve, the Divine. In short, a higher power.

Sometimes this higher power is loving and merciful, sometimes it’s critical and vengeful.

You’re expected to accept whatever life throws at you because it’s the will of God. Your higher power has a plan for you and you have to trust Him. You’re one of its servants.

But what if you don’t have faith?

The second approach is the belief in an inner resource found in each individual.

 

This is particularly well illustrated by the meaning of the word Namaste, a typical greeting among Hindus and yoga practitioners.

“I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light and of peace. When you’re in that place in you and I’m in that place in me, we’re one.”

In this place — also called the inner guide, the inner teacher, the inner sanctuary, the inner voice, and in everyday language the soul — you can find peace when life is tumultuous around you, look for guidance when you’re lost, experience joy even when you’re grieving.

Gandhi said,

I had long since taught myself to follow the inner voice. I delighted in submitting to it. To act against it would be difficult and painful to me.

But what do you do if you don’t hear this inner voice, if you’re disconnected from it?

When you don’t have either one or the other, you may have to confront the darkness of moral aloneness. And this is indeed a daunting prospect.

For some, this pain is just unbearable. They revert to a previous well-known state. They go back to their home country and/or find a way to return to the workforce even if this means taking a job that’s not fulfilling and hurting their values.

Others freeze and find themselves paralyzed.

And others still, hold the tension. They stay in discomfort. They try to find another path.

When we are no longer able to change the situation, we’re challenged to change ourselves.

wrote Viktor Frankl in ‘Man’s search for meaning’, an account of his experience in the concentration camps. 

What if this experience was meant to change you in a way you could never have imagined?

What if this experience that forces you to stop, to review your role, to put everything back into perspective, was an opportunity to change your worldview for the better?

What if this experience was given to you to become more compassionate, more open, more fully human?

While walking together on this path, let the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke resonate in our minds:

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

How does this speak to you?

 

Photo credit Insecurity mind via photopin (license) Music credit from the Piano Society

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Comments

  1. Angela Shaw says:

    Thanks for yet another excellent podcast and article on coping with uncertainty. I was in Tokyo and Shanghai over the Xmas and New Years’ holiday and I’m just getting around to settling into my old routine here in France. While your focus is on the expat challenge, I can tell you that the France post-Charlie Hebdo is not the France that I left back in December. In almost all of my regular monthly women’s groups everyone is exuding so much more anxiety around “security” and “finances”. Between the US recent tax and banking changes on the one hand and these random killings around France, the ambiance of our meetings are much more tense than they were traditionally.

    • Angela, it’s always a pleasure to read you. Thanks for this insight in your country of adoption. As if life in itself wasn’t uncertain enough, those events increase the tensions. It seems to me that it shows our high internal vulnerability usually covered up by our material affluence. But when the sea gets rough, we’re completely unprepared.

      • angela shaw says:

        Thanks Anne, your reply to me gave me the motivation to re-listen to your podcast and lo and behold I found something else. I am going to make a few inquiries about the similarities in the feelings of being “trapped” especially for black American women living and working in G-7 countries as members of regulated professions, such as doctors and lawyers. While “domestically” the outcomes to “affirmative actions” in the professions were often seen as affronts to the principles of “meritocracy”, I think that this is not so much the case in professional practices abroad. Contrasting the experiences of black American professional lawyer/expats in France for example with those of “local” black French professional lawyers may be worth considering and hence the narrowing of one’s options in fact becomes the expansion of those options. Only someone who has the advantage of living in two worlds can reliably contrast the patterns and practices in those two worlds, and in so doing shed added light on each one individually. While I feel the immediate truth in regard to the life of the “trailing spouse” in the broadest sense, however, there are some occupations which incorporate more resilient identities which are not as wedded to salaries .

  2. And another great article full of ideas, brilliant and focused quotes and insights. How do you do it, Anne? I am not even an expat any more (though that might change, as the article suggests: we can never be sure), but I still love to read what you write . If I was religious, I would say your are a blessing to womankind (expatkind), if I wasn’t, “we are one”.

    • Dear Corinna, this post struck a chord! And your comment touched my heart. I love the beauty of Namaste: Yes, “we are one” 🙂

  3. Very timely indeed, Anne, as I prepare for my repatriation next month. Between reflecting on my expat experience and anticipating what lies ahead, this post was timely. Thank you. For me, the poem speaks volumes…as with so much, embracing the experience now is my life goal.

  4. Great article! I think these two strategies are crucial if we want not only to survive an uncertainty but have a major desire to deeply enjoy our lives and use all the circumstances we encounter for our growth

    • Thanks Sofia for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. This perfectly echoes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin “We’re not human beings having a spiritual experience. We’re spiritual beings having a human experience”

  5. I just found your website, have read through some of the wonderful posts and people’s comments, and suddenly I feel understood!

    I appreciate and agree with the sentiments in this post about accepting and embracing where we find ourselves. The quote from poet Rainer Maria Rilke is wonderful. Usually I’m pretty good at looking at things that way, but I am finding our latest move to be more difficult than I had imagined it would be.

    Although I am a trailing spouse within my own country and so don’t have to deal with the challenges of language barriers and visa issues, I have been especially surprised at the cultural differences I’ve run into this time around. We moved from a university town in one rural state to this university town in another rural state within the same region and yet I feel like a total foreigner here. This coupled with the hope of – but no guarantee – of long-term employment here for my husband creates some interesting challenges, as we don’t know year-to-year what will happen. Do we hope for the best and settle down and buy a house, or do we rent and always keep the suitcases packed?

    I am trying (although not always with great success) to let go of control and take advantage of the opportunities this move gives me. When I stop and think about it, I do have a pretty good list of positives: If we were living in a more urban area, I would not be able to teach art classes at our community art center as I can now, because there would be artists with more skill and credentials filling those jobs. I also would not have as much spare time to devote to my painting practice as I do here, since I don’t need to have a full-time job to supplement my husband’s pay in order to afford housing. The scenery outside of town is unique and beautiful and has pushed me to give plein air (on location) landscape painting a try and I’ve discovered I love it. (Plus doing art and being in nature is meditative and soothing to me, and helps with the loneliness.) If we move again, the time that I’m getting now to hone my skills will give me a leg up in our next locale. All in all, a pretty good list, but sometimes I miss good food, and culture, and like-minded people so much it overwhelms me!

    I wish everyone the best in our journeys – both geographically and in our own personal growth!

    • Dear Gabrielle, thanks so much for this sharing and for indeed reminding us that you don’t need to be – or to have been – an expat to feel like a foreigner in your own country! In some ways, I think it may be even harder because this concept is widely ignored. I popped over to your blog, enjoyed the quotes, your thought process regarding your work and the paintings. Great!

  6. Dear Anne,
    great post as always! Thank you! Uncertainty is a common word of 21first century way of leaving! But, i learn to live the present and share it with the people that I love. This help me to built a good and positive tomorrow.
    A presto Elena

  7. Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee says:

    Very much enjoyed your post (as always). I just want to add, as a theologian and ethicist, and a progressive (United Methodist) Christian, that many of the other expats I have met are also either progressive Christians; or, have a history in Christianity, but are so progressive that they no longer relate to more conservative Christian theology. I realize you cannot make this post into an exploration of progressive theologies, and I like what you said about the two ideas not being mutually exclusive. The idea of the Divine as an external, male puppet master, while providing a kind of certainty, is no longer satisfying to many people of both education and cultural diversity/world travels; yet people of faith often find more resonance with concepts from their faith traditions than with the second (internal) concept you articulate. I can see that you yourself have a beautiful and inclusive approach to spirituality (and atheism), and I appreciate your approach. I just wanted to toss this comment into the mix for the sake of myself and all those other universalist feminist Christians in the world – a significant and growing portion of Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) in the world today. My articulation of what I take to be your approach to uncertainty would sound more like this:

    “The Divine that dwells in us, in one another, and in all Creation calls us to embrace the mystery of the cosmos as part of our journey. We find solace knowing we are not alone on the journey, and mystery (a more positive word for uncertainty) keeps us open to intellectual, personal, and spiritual growth. Our comfort in the face of uncertainty comes in allowing ourselves to rest into the mystery of the universe and knowing that we are not alone; the power of Love and Life surrounds us through the Creation in and around us, the relationships we build, and always dwells inside us. We embrace the power of Love and Life, seeing hope in despair from the springtime resurrection that comes after each winter. Difficult transitions are the journeys through the wilderness, which, as in our Scriptures, always lead to liberation and rebirth as a new creation.”
    (For useful articulations of progressive Christianity, I recommend pretty much anything by Marcus Borg. For a good book on Christian Ecofeminism, I recommend Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, by Rosemary Radford Ruether.)

    • Dear Tallessyn, thanks a lot for this very detailed and insightful addition. Progressive Christianity is a movement I had never heard of. Very grateful for the references!

  8. Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee says:

    I’m so glad you found it interesting and helpful. I’d be delighted to talk more at any time. 🙂

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