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Uncertainty: The surprising gift of being unsure

A woman smiles under the sunset. (RunPhoto via Getty Images)
A woman smiles under the sunset. (RunPhoto via Getty Images)

No matter how much order, sense, or predictability we try to bring to our lives, uncertainty and the anxiety it can create are always there.

Researchers say, that’s actually a good thing.

Today, On Point: Learning to love uncertainty.


Maggie M. Jackson, journalist and author. Author of Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure.

Book Excerpt


Excerpt from Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure by Maggie M. Jackson. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Part I

MAGGIE JACKSON (and others): All right, starting my hand warmers. Beth should be here any minute. The puddles are frozen. The sky is amazing. The deck is not too icy.

PERSON #2: No it’s not.

JACKSON: Hey! We have a gorgeous morning.

PERSON #3: Good morning.

JACKSON: Oh my gosh. I thought I looked out the sky and it was just dull clouds. And then we turned, we went over the hill and it was, it’s stunning.

PERSON #3: Yeah. Oh, look at that sky. It’s a pink, orange, gray, lavender. Yeah. I mean, sometimes we get the total orange. Sometimes we get all yellow. The cloud’s look like moutnains with snow on them, don’t they?

PERSON #2: It’s the front range mountain. It is. I know. The sea can give you anything you’d like, Beth.

PERSON #3: Exactly. OK, I’m gonna swim over that way and go skiing.

PERSON #2: OK, Beth.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Maggie, that last voice there, someone named Beth, who is that?

MAGGIE JACKSON: Beth is originally from Colorado and she’s a transplanted New Englander who we swim with every morning. She’s one of my fellow we call ourselves the sea bears, and some people call themselves the mermaisons, but anyhow we’re a conglomeration of people who come together to swim in the ocean four seasons a year.

CHAKRABARTI: In the ocean, so four seasons a year. Now you sent us this just yesterday after your morning swim in the Atlantic. I think yesterday it was, what, air temperature of 20 and water temperature of 43-ish?

JACKSON: Yes, with only a slight breeze, so we were really lucky. And a little sliver of sun, so again, we were really lucky.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay let’s listen to a little bit more, after you go on this frigid swim. Maggie coming out of the water.

Oh. Cold. Semi, semi solid.

It is not warm.

Oh my god. My hands. That was not a complete success. Those glows.

They splat in too much water.

Oh man.

But we got a beautiful day.

CHAKRABARTI: Beautiful and half frozen like a human sized ice cube. This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti, and Maggie Jackson is our guest today. And regardless of temperature or unpredictable currents, ocean swimming is something Maggie does.

Every day, right? Seven days a week?

JACKSON: Just about.

CHAKRABARTI: Seven days a week. Obviously, there are health benefits to it, but in order to plunge herself out of a state of comfort and into uncertainty, that is another benefit she experiences from ocean swimming four seasons a year. And purposefully embracing a state of uncertainty, it’s the subject of Maggie’s new book.

It’s called Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure. Maggie, welcome to On Point.

JACKSON: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. When I first read that you swim in the North Atlantic, essentially in the middle of winter, I was like, why? Why do you do it?

JACKSON: It really started, I’ve always been an ocean swimmer, but more of a pool swimmer for exercise, ocean for fun.

And when the pandemic came, the pools closed. So we actually moved out of the city and to Rhode Island. And so I became eager to do this form of exercise which was really my thing longer and longer into the season and then bought the wetsuit and then bought the gloves and et cetera, et cetera.

So I found it joyful. We find it exhilarating. It is great exercise in itself. But then I began to also realize that we were constantly on the edge. And that was part of the wonder and the discomfort and the excitement of it all.

CHAKRABARTI: So for those people who haven’t been ocean swimming, what brings you, what are the factors that make you feel like you’re on the edge?

Sure, you can be in your warm, cozy house and be looking at the app that tells you the wavelength due to the probabilistic modeling, etc. You can know the beach, you can know the conditions there, and you get there, and it can be completely different or at least a little bit different. You really never know exactly what you’re going to get.

And then when you enter the water, of course, it’s all changing. We actually swim a little bit before the sun comes up often and it’s amazing. The sun rising has an instant, near instant effect on the ocean itself, which is absolutely fascinating. I’ve grown to learn. And so you are looking for spots, which are dicey, churning spots, etc.

CHAKRABARTI: Ah. So what you’re saying is the data that you can gather beforehand will never perfectly match the conditions that you’re swimming in.

JACKSON: Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And so that, and that lends you a sense of exhilaration because a lot of people would say because I can’t know for sure. I don’t want to do it.

JACKSON: Exactly.

But you’re on the edge of what you know, you have a grounding, you do know the conditions, you have a little bit of the data, but you’re at the edge where basically not anything can happen, a 40-foot tsunami, et cetera, but you’re living in the moment in an improvisational way and learning as you go, even in those 20, 30 minutes of the swim. You’re completely not knowing quite what will happen even though you have an expectation.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, but so tell me about what you’re feeling in that moment or how it changes your perspective of being in that moment. And if that’s also had an impact on how you see other things that you’re not quite so sure of.

JACKSON: Exactly. I really puzzled over why exactly I loved it so much, because I actually don’t like the cold and I don’t love high waves, etcetera.

But I found that I realized that this not knowing, this sort of daily dose of uncertainty was strengthening me in ways. Hence the laughter, hence the joy, hence the banter. We really feel, I remember a fellow during the pandemic kind of stopped to talk to us as we were in our wetsuits. He was not, but he said, doesn’t it make you feel so alive?

He knew exactly what we were doing. And that’s what it is. You’re constantly on the edge. And it makes me feel as though I can, I’m capable of dealing with what life throws at me the rest of the day. I feel as though the not knowing what the ocean holds, it’s changed my perspective on swimming, on the ocean, on exploring or throwing myself into something new.

It’s just made unpredictability a little bit more the norm and in a wonderful way. Because that is what life is. And I’m learning in every moment. I feel as though I’m totally, utterly alive when I’m doing it.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. I’ll just put out there that for people who aren’t ocean swimmers and think about wanting to do it, first of all, do it with people who know how to do it. Because mother nature is all powerful.

So maybe you don’t want to just plunge in without a group of knowledgeable experienced folks around you. Cause I was remembering many years ago, I spent a summer in La Jolla, California. Right next door to San Diego. So it was a summer there and I was on the beach every day. And one day I went out to swim.

There was a buoy about maybe a fifth of a mile out. So I was like making my way out there. The water depth wasn’t that great. It was like maybe six to seven feet at that point, but this wave came out of nowhere and just pounded me down, and my head hit the sand at the bottom of that stretch of ocean.

And I popped back up and I was like, it was a reminder that Mother Nature always wins.

JACKSON: And isn’t that what life is? We are actually not as in control as we might think we are every day.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But this is why your book is so provocative. Because the recognition of the limits of our control, and then pushing ourselves into the state of uncertainty that comes with that recognition.

You write in the book that it’s a source of strength, right? First of all, I suppose we should [explain what] you do mean by the certain types of uncertainty in the book.

JACKSON: think it’s important to add that people, experts, there’s a lot of debate about different types of uncertainty. You can find different definitions in economics, et cetera. But mainly we can talk about two main types of uncertainty.

One is alleatory so called uncertainty, and that’s the unknown, that’s a shorthand for the unknown, what we cannot know, you really, despite the app, do not know, whether the waves will rise or fall in the next half hour, etc. But then there is our uncertainty or epistemic uncertainty, psychological uncertainty, you might call it, and that’s the human response to the unknown.

And some people define it as recognizing the limits of what you know. It’s a moment. It’s not full-blown ignorance. It’s not, the blank slate I might have for particle physics. It’s basically being unsure. And also recognizing that something could be this way or could be that way. So it’s being on that edge, as I mentioned.

CHAKRABARTI: So to be clear, the aleatory uncertainty you’re talking about was simply the fact that there are limits to our knowledge.

JACKSON: The alleatory uncertainty is really what we cannot know.

CHAKRABARTI: We just simply can’t know.

JACKSON: It’s the unknowns that we face every single day. Whereas epistemic uncertainty is the recognition that we reached the limits of our knowledge.

CHAKRABARTI: And at that moment, we don’t know, but we’re unsure. We’re uncertain. And this can, and so the epistemic side is what you’re focusing on?

JACKSON: Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: And it can involve anything from just maybe small situations in life to the great unknowns in our life, right?

JACKSON: Absolutely. It can be, epistemic uncertainty can be if you cast a wide net, moments’ daydream when you’re casting yourself from the here and now and launching into the what if scenarios of what’s going to happen tomorrow. And uncertainty can be the deliberative space that a surgeon in a high stakes crisis will inhabit so that then they can problem solve with a situation that they haven’t sensed, seen before.

And so uncertainty can come, I think it’s really important, an important point that uncertainty can take on a lot of different modes and types. That’s something we need to talk about more in our society today.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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