Comfortable with Uncertainty

Being comfortable with uncertainty, is certainly uncomfortable

On Sunday night, I was driving back from the Philly Invite, an Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Allentown, PA. When we started the trip, we were a few gallons shy of a full tank and several cards short of a full deck.

Speaking of being short of a full deck, everyone seems to be especially worried about the price of gas lately. Personally, I have just accepted that it’s going to be more expensive because it is almost completely out of my control. You can complain about it if you really want to, but I’d prefer that you change your habits and start driving less before telling me how “unfair” it is. It’s not really “unfair” if everyone faces the same price. It’s really a supply and demand problem not a societal injustice.

Anyway, the point is we had enough gas to get us just over 300 miles, and the trip from Allentown to Boston was about 315 miles. So, being the good friend that I am, I made sure to let Dave know that we could definitely make it to Boston without stopping to get gas. After all, none of us had ever personally run out of gas, and although it was going to be late at night, the consequence of actually running out of gas is mostly inconvenience and a loss of time. You are not in any real physical danger when you run out of gas, in fact, it could be fun to be trapped on the side of the road with a few friends while you wait for AAA to help you out.

I am personally mystified by the fear of running out of gas. What drives us to the edge of insanity when the orange light comes on in the car? Do you not have a cell phone and AAA? The fact of the matter is that running out of gas isn’t that bad. So, of course, knowing the consequences and the excitement of being uncertain, I insisted that we press through to Boston without stopping when the orange light came on with 50 miles to empty. Now, what happened next was a fascinating set of circumstances that I will briefly recount.

50 miles left.

The tension mounted. Would we make it safely or would everyone enjoy about 45 minutes relentlessly taunting, Max?

40 miles left.

There was some friendly bickering over whether to get gas, and fortunately, Dave was fairly easily convinced with the usual peer pressure tactics that he would be “sacrificing his manhood” if he were to stop and get gas. After all, how would we know if we weren’t going to make if he stopped for gas?

30 miles left.
Dave started putting the car into neutral on every downhill and maintaining a steady 55 – 60mph to maximize fuel economy. Silence took over.

20 miles left.

Sarcasm became the main form of communication in the car as everyone began to get nervous. Jeremy could not help but check the "miles to empty" every few seconds. The radio was turned off and the air-conditioning was lowered to conserve gas.

15 miles left.

At this point, having been warned that there were no open gas stations in Auburndale, MA, where we had to stop to drop off Andy, everything began to spiral out of control. To be fair, I was making things worse by asking Dave which way he wanted to go, already knowing that he was unfamiliar with the bowels of Newton and Auburndale. It was especially disconcerting for him since I was the one with the GPS on my blackberry assuring him we would be okay. At this point, however, I had turned it off telling him that our fate was in his hands.

- - - - miles left.

Under a certain mileage, the dashboard no longer tells you how many miles you have left to empty. This created even more tension and there were a few threats of physical violence towards the baller riding shotgun. Fortunately, Dave was concentrating on driving efficiently and not running out of gas. Being a black belt in karate, he could have caused some serious damage to the bones in my body. I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t interested as I pointed out each and every one of the 15 closed gas stations that we passed at 11:30pm.

As the car began to sputter in Newton Heights, we saw the Promised Land: US Petroleum. We coasted in on fumes and made it safely to the pump. The 1999 4WD Volvo 850 Wagon guzzled up a healthy 18.207 gallons of gas despite the fact that the manual insisted that this model only held 17.4 gallons. At this point, everyone could breath easy once again. We had not run out of gas, and with a full tank of gas, everyone was once again certain that running out of gas was not a possibility. Once again, fooled by our expectations, our severe mental and physical anxiety was unnecessary.

So what did we learn from this experience?

Uncertainty creates a sense of mental discomfort. Our reactive mind wants to know the outcome of every situation so that it can be at peace. If we are certain of what is going to happen, then our imagination cannot live out the worst case scenario. In lieu of this, however, we begin to create trauma before it happens as our mind imagines the worst possible outcomes and scenarios. This causes strong feelings of mental discomfort whether we are aware of them or not. Frequently, this will manifest in anger, frustration, anxiousness, nervous laughter, exhaustion, and physical discomfort as we try to cope with these feelings.

Frequently, even when our cognitive mind tells us to be comfortable with uncertainty, the mental and physical discomfort persists. One cause of this may be our individual sense of attachment created at a very young age in our parental relationships. We all create certain expectations of how to deal with uncertainty from early childhood, which is so ingrained in our ways of being that we have trouble letting it go. Another cause of this may be our natural affinity for the status quo and fear of change. Simply watching the transformation that took place in the car, it was clear to me that we were outside of our box of possibilities and our normal comfort zones. It was very rare for all of us to test the limits of the car by consciously deciding not to get gas; this was certainly a drastic change from our normal behavior.

Ultimately, we experienced a very important life lesson, which is far more important than not running out of gas (or even running out of gas for that matter). We were able to face uncertainty, and realize just how uncomfortable it could be to be comfortable with uncertainty. This is an important lesson because most of our lives are uncertain all the time! We are not certain what the weather will be tomorrow, what will happen next week in the stock market, or even what will happen in a few months during the upcoming Presidential election. We have some sense of certainty, but only because it is more comfortable to deceive ourselves and pretend that we can predict the future. We must experience the discomfort of uncertainty in order to comfortably face situations that are much more challenging, strenuous, or important than something as benign as running out of gas. This is just a test drive for the rest of our lives!

So the moral of the story is this: next time the orange light comes on in your car, take a deep breath, hold the wheel firmly, and ask yourself, “How low can you go?”