Living With Uncertainty

by Catherine Fenwick ã 2000

I talked to a friend last week who has two daughters working in Japan. One of my children lives in Chicago, one in Quebec and another in British Columbia. Many of my children's friends live and work overseas, in Europe, Korea, Japan and Australia. Many of these young people have trouble finding secure employment because of current demographics, the nature of the economy, global and political change and massive changes in the way governments are operating. They are held back by the sheer numbers of baby boomers who currently fill up the labour pool, at the same time as government and non government organizations are cutting staff.

Two phenomena are well under way. Early boomers, age 45 to 55, are getting early retirement and lay off notices. They are stressed because they are too young to retire, so what the heck are they to do now? The middle boomers, age 35 to 45, are pressured by the competition of large numbers, cutbacks and the most highly educated workforce there has ever been. The late boomers and young adults have difficulty finding job security.

So everyone is stressed. Change is happening faster than we can adjust. People are saying they feel confused and frustrated. People who have jobs are working harder and for longer hours. They say the way they are working conflicts with personal values and often there is confusion in the organization. People feel lost on their career path and have a hard time accepting that what they had planned and hoped for may not happen. They are going along believing that life is good, things are unfolding as planned and suddenly everything blows up. Our emotional ground becomes shaky, we lose our balance and fall. We may do this many times, fall down - get up, fall down - get up again, until we learn to walk on shaky ground. Those dreams and plans we had for a really great future become blurred. Panic sets in as we grasp and clutch at the fading dreams. Emotions of loss and grief begin to fill the void. Anger, frustration and sadness fill many a waking moment as we flounder with everything from denial to despair in our effort to get to solid ground again. I think of an infant learning to walk. If the infant gave up after 20, 50, 100 falls, that child would never learn to walk, run and play. Living with uncertainty is like that, but we must never give up on the things that really matter.

Living with cancer and living with job uncertainty have a lot in common. In a crisis we tend to focus on that one issue and, like a scab that is repeatedly scratched off, the sore cannot heal. During my experience with cancer and chemotherapy I concluded that if I focused on the insidious cancer cells, I might actually promote their growth. If I focused on how best to live my life at this time and get on with it, I could quite likely inhibit the growth of cancer cells. If you take a picture and hold it right up against your face so your nose touches it, all you see is a big blob and maybe one small part of the picture. Focusing on this one small portion you are unable to see the big picture. When you step back you see the same piece as an integral part of the whole thing. Such is life, each moment is only a part of the whole picture.

Like the person living with cancer, who watches, cries with and helps friends and relatives as they move out of this life, employees are wondering, "What next?" How do we live with this uncertainty? Things are changing all around us. We must ask ourselves the questions: Are things changing for the better? Are they changing in ways that are healthier? What can I do to contribute to the process? How can I take better care of myself? How can we work together to keep spirit alive at work?

Most of us naively believe that life should be predictable, fair and safe -- but it isn't. Those who experience adversity and are not destroyed by it develop a resilience and strength which helps them to live daily with ambiguity. They develop an inner strength, learn skills for coping with things that they cannot change and spend their energy working on things they can change, or at least influence. There's a story about a person who prayed and prayed to win the lottery. One night God came to him in a dream and said, "Joe, I know how much you would like to win the lottery, but you've got to help me out here. Buy a ticket!" Like Joe, we can do our part to create the life we want. Remember, there are no guarantees.

Learn to step back from the picture and put that part of your life into perspective. \Learn to notice opportunities so when a door opens you are available to walk through it. When we act on our own behalf, things change for us. There is a sense of peace as we walk on shaky ground, creating new paths. There is a saying in Aboriginal folklore, "When there is no marked trail, you should walk a new path and leave a trail for others."

I have great admiration for people who are creating new paths in this unpredictable world, for those who continue to do meaningful work in less than secure circumstances. I admire those who go on to create new careers, or renew old ones, and those who accept unknowns, embracing ambiguity with dignity, integrity and a healing sense of humour. We can learn to live with uncertainty.

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