Navigating Total Uncertainty: Just Do the Next Right Thing
Disney went ahead and released Frozen 2 early on Disney+ yesterday, something I’m sure hundreds of thousands of kids and parents appreciated amidst a world on lockdown.
Of course I reserved my evening to watch it (again — I definitely also saw it in theatres opening weekend).
I noticed a lot more watching it the second time around, and while I still believe the first movie is by far the superior film overall, Frozen 2 offered me a few moments of salient reflection more intricate than its predecessor.
Towards the beginning of the film, Grand Pabbie, the Troll King who acts as the herald to the heroines’ journeys, tells Elsa and Anna:
“When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.”
In the context of the film, he is a semi all-seeing seer who can literally not see the future due to the magical spirits Elsa has awakened. But in a time of immense uncertainty, when a global pandemic has sent the markets plummeting, driven most people away from other people, sent others to their deathbeds too early, and left so many trembling with fear, anxiety, and anger, Grand Pabbie’s words hold a particular weight I didn’t feel back in November of 2019.
For those of us who are at higher risk or love people at higher risk to the danger posed by COVID-19, we may truly be struggling to conjure an image of the future right now. Or our image may be so filled with the worst case possibilities that the future we see is crippling, unmanageable, unfathomable. For others, the uncertainty created by the erasure of wealth as the markets plummet may be paralyzing, causing overwhelming feelings of fear, worry, and stress as we try to chart a new course of action in destructive, mercurial waters.
Here in Toronto, Ontario, the weather is beautiful. I’m looking out on a day that would otherwise feel rife with possibility. The beginnings of spring have knocked on my door. But the outside world can be hard to appreciate when lives are being put on hold while others are threatened; when we have no idea what the next year, month, week, or even day will bring; when we’re asking ourselves how we’re going to pay our bills because we can’t work; when we’ve stopped making plans.
For many of us, the stress, the panic, the unknowingness caused by the pandemic, its surrounding discussion, and the measures taken to protect against it is causing us more damage right now than the virus itself. So what do we do when we can’t see what the future holds for us, or when the future we’re projecting feels unbearable?
“All one can do is the next right thing.”
We can take it one step at a time. We can look as far ahead as we are able, mitigating risk where we can, while recognizing that the only real thing is the moment we’re in right now.
It’s easy to walk ourselves around in circles, going over and over the different possibilities, wondering if we’re doing enough, if there’s something else we should be doing or should have done differently. It’s easy to worry and panic-shop — it can feel productive, even when it’s not, because we don’t know what else to do. And perhaps we may even feel guilty if we’re not worrying or acting out of worry, like we’re not treating the uncertainty with the gravity it deserves. It’s easy to let fear and anxiety of the unknown, of what may become a very serious reality, drive us to live in a future ultimately borne only in our minds.
But the only real choice we ever have to make right now is what to do next.
There are two sides to uncertainty caused by the unknowingness of it.
The first is the side of loss. The possibility that we will experience our worst case scenario, and things will change drastically, and we will have to navigate a completely different world than the one we knew before.
The second is the side of triumph. The possibility that we will experience our best case scenario, and things will change drastically, and we will get to navigate a completely different world than the one we knew before.
Most often, what will become real lies somewhere in the middle.
But today both sides exist together, simultaneously, inextricably one and the same in our minds, in the only place that the future exists until the future becomes the present moment. All we can do is let our hope for that best case scenario guide our actions, let it tell us what the next right thing is to do in this moment, in the only place where we and the people we love are real.
We can cook a meal.
We can take a shower.
We can go for a walk.
We can learn a new skill.
We can wash our hands after being in a public space.
We can spend quality time with the people with whom we are isolated.
We can buy gift cards from our local community businesses as a testament to our hope for the future — ours and theirs.
We can call our friends, or plan social gatherings that leverage the internet to keep us connected.
We can spend some serious quality time with ourselves, treating ourselves with the love and care and reflection we’re deserving of but usually neglect.
We can read or take an online class or make something.
We can start making plans and setting goals for the future we want.
We can just exist in the present moment, in the time that is real.
We can get inspired to get involved; if we’re angry, we can demonstrate our hope for the future by brainstorming how we can right the wrongs we feel have been committed.
And an endless plethora of other things that address where where we are right here, right now.
All we can ever actually do is the next right thing.
“I am a very old man who has suffered many misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
— Mark Twain (attributed)