Fearing the Unknown

The unknown tends to get in the way, doesn’t it?

You want to know what questions will come up in an exam, but that is unknown until you sit down and turn the paper over.

You want the party to go well because you’ve prepared so much for it. But you won’t be sure until the party’s over.

You have a job interview coming up. You understand the type of person the company is looking for (you, of course!), but you still don’t know what type of questions the panel might throw at you.

These situations can easily eat away at you. You imagine a million and one possible scenarios and outcomes. You panic over the negative thoughts going through your head.

photo by zetson

photo by zetson

None of those million and one scenarios turn out to be the correct one in the end. Often, you’re not even close. And the negative stories always drown out the positive ones in the end.

Not exactly a recipe for clear thinking.

I noticed this before a recent family gathering. Twenty of us were meeting up from all over the country for a special meal in a posh country restaurant. One of the organisers felt a tinge of responsibility and felt that everything had to pass off perfectly. Should anything go wrong with the orders or the timing, they thought the blame would be theirs.

The stress built and built. There was no need for it. The meal was great. Was it really worth hours of stress beforehand?

It made me wonder why the unknown is so good at making us weaker at the very time we’re trying to be strong.

Then it struck me. A very simple thought that makes a lot of sense:

It is much easier to attach importance to non-events than it is to attach importance to *the* event.

Why? Because there are so many non-events swimming around your head, ready for you to re-enact whenever it suits. But there is only one actual event. And since it hasn’t happened yet, it’s easy to latch on to non-events.

It’s right to be aware of unknowns, but it doesn’t help to worry about them beyond initial awareness and preparation.

A while back, I was going for a meal with a group of old school friends with the aim to catch up and look back at our past. The food was a general focus, but the company was more important.

It could have been so easy to worry:

  • What should we talk about?
  • Will people have changed?
  • Have we picked a good enough restaurant?

But I didn’t bother. It was impossible to know what the future would hold. So I went without rehearsed expectations and concerns.

And then it all went wrong. In all the right ways…

It began when I didn’t get a starter along with everyone else. I guessed it would come along soon. After a minute or so, my friends stopped waiting and got stuck in to their food. They didn’t miss the opportunity to make a big deal of how delicious the food was!

Plates were cleared and main courses were put out. I hadn’t got my starter.

Guess what? I didn’t get a main course either.

The joke was now a big part of our conversation. Not getting my food had become the entertainment. None of us were going to forget what had happened.

None of us could have predicted this either.

The waiter asked how we were enjoying the food. This in itself got a big laugh. I replied, “I couldn’t comment on the food, because I haven’t eaten any yet”.

After explaining the issue to the waiter, he made a rather embarrassed apology and ran off to sort things out.

The thing is, he didn’t. Other staff came out of the kitchen and handed my friends their desserts. To make the hat-trick, my pudding didn’t turn up. My entire order had disappeared and, it seems, so had the waiter.

At this point, the manager was walking about and casually asked us if we were enjoying the evening. When we, still full of laughter, explained why the evening had been so great, the manager went nuts and promised to sort things out.

Finally, my starter arrived just as everyone was finishing the pudding. It felt like I’d been parachuted into a sitcom.

But the entire disaster helped to create an amazing evening. And to top things off, the manager was so apologetic about the oversight that she offered the full meal on the house and let us have more drink as a further sweetener.

Who’d have expected this to happen? When life delivers so many curveballs, what is the point in worrying about the unknown?

  • Stay calm –  Take a walk, talk to a friend, smile, close your eyes and take a deep breath, accept the uncertainty and embrace the possibility.
  • Let go of false control – Personally reject responsibility for anything that you don’t have control over. Give yourself that peace. No matter how much you wish you could control it, you must accept it when the issue is out of your hands.
  • Do more research – Worry about the unknown can develop when you don’t know enough about what you’re stepping into. If you have a question that has an answer, seek out that answer!
  • Ask for help – If you’ve done the basic preparation and you still can’t let go, reach out to others. It’s not weak to ask for help. A few words of reassurance may be all it takes to remove those fears.

Preparation is fine. Acknowledging the situation is fine. Trying your best is fine.

But is it worth going beyond the basics and attaching so much importance to non-events? After all, it hasn’t happened until it has happened.