Embracing Uncertainty: How to Feel Emotionally Stable in a Pandemic
March 30, 2020
Disclaimer: The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in these papers and articles are strictly those of the authors. Furthermore, Yaqeen does not endorse any of the personal views of the authors on any platform. Our team is diverse on all fronts, allowing for constant, enriching dialogue that helps us produce high-quality research.
For more on this topic, see Faith in the Time of Coronavirus
Life is all about making decisions. Every moment of the day we make decisions, some mundane and others more meaningful. In the morning, we have to decide what to wear and what to eat and by the afternoon we may have to decide what stocks to invest in or how to respond to a crisis. Before deciding any course of action, we wish we could be certain that we are making the best decision.
People crave certainty in life. Certainty gives us a sense of security and the feeling that we have life under control. That is why we check the weather forecast, can’t wait for the ultrasound revealing the gender of our child, and make investments with the most stable returns. However, despite constantly seeking certainty for what tomorrow will hold, uncertainty has been woven into the fabric of the universe by the infinite wisdom of Allah. Everything in this life is meant to change except for Allah. The seasons, the colors of the trees, our emotions, our children, and even our personalities are always changing, all with varying levels of predictability. The only absolute constant in the universe is Allah; as He says, “...Everything will perish except His Face.”
Allah reminds us that He alone has certainty and control over the most fundamental affairs in this life. “Indeed, Allah [alone] has knowledge of the Hour and sends down the rain and knows what is in the wombs. And no soul perceives what it will earn tomorrow, and no soul perceives in what land it will die. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” This verse reminds us not only of Allah’s infinite knowledge but that to human beings nearly everything is indeterminate and uncertain. The date that this world will end, where and when rain will fall (which societies and economies depend on), the fate of the child in the earliest stages in the womb, our jobs and wealth, and the time of our death are all matters that we will never achieve certainty in regardless of advancements in science.
The person who tolerates uncertainty and is comfortable with it will be able to function better in life than the one who constantly desires control and certainty. This is because the person who accepts uncertainty acknowledges that they are not in absolute control of their affairs and does not stress over what they cannot control. Conversely, the one who runs away from uncertainty and covets control over the details of their life will find “what they resist to persist.” They will only find uncertainty everywhere and be in a perpetual state of worry, anxiety, and stress. Stress is a direct response to situations where people feel uncertain and feel a lack of control.
Uncertainty intolerance can be defined as a cognitive bias that affects how a person perceives, interprets, and responds to uncertain situations on a cognitive, emotional, and behavioral level. People who exhibit high levels of uncertainty intolerance consider it unacceptable that a negative event may occur, however small the probability of its occurrence. Decades of research on the etiology of worrying have suggested that uncertainty intolerance is actually the root cause of worry and generalized anxiety disorder. Worrying and anxiety then lead to fear, and fear leads people to overestimate the risk of negative outcomes. This creates a negative feedback cycle that perpetuates anxiety. Thus, not only does uncertainty intolerance cause us to worry about today, through increased anxiety and fear we envision a future far more dismal than it actually will be. This creates a sense of hopelessness and pessimism about the future, which is antithetical to the Islamic worldview of hope and optimism.
The Islamic worldview encourages us to focus our attention and effort where we have more agency and to entrust the affairs that we have no control over to Allah. Thus, we reduce our uncertainty by working hard to increase the probability of success in our sphere of influence, while embracing the only certainty in life: Allah, al-Haqq, the Truth that is constant and never changes. We put our uncertainty in the hands of al-Wakeel, the One most suitable to entrust our affairs to. The Prophet ﷺ beautifully explained this mindset and behavior when he explained, “Were you to put your complete trust in Allah, He would provide for you as He provides for the birds. They go out hungry in the morning and return filled in the evening.” The birds are completely uncertain regarding the when, where, and what they will catch when they leave their nests in the early morning. However, their uncertainty does not paralyze them but it motivates them to do the only thing in their power: to actually seek out what has been decreed for them.
Similarly, in aspects of life that the Prophet ﷺ had no control over and was uncertain regarding its outcome, he would make dua (e.g., istikhara) to Allah and move on. Moreover, he was certain that Allah would respond, and commanded us to “Call upon Allah with certainty that he will answer you. Know that Allah will not answer the supplication of a heart that is negligent and distracted.” For example, when the wind would begin to blow strongly, he would say, “O Allah, I ask You for its goodness and I take refuge with You from its evil.” This is how life is meant to be lived. We do not know exactly what will happen tomorrow, but we do what is in our control to please Allah and maximize positive outcomes while relying on Allah and trusting His divine decree is in our best interest. This is what the great scholar, Ibn Taymiya, referred to when he reflected over what the most important dua was. He said, “I realized it was seeking Allah’s assistance in trying to please Him. And I realized it was in the Fatiha, in the verse, ‘It is you alone that we worship and you alone that we rely upon.’”