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  • Robert Farago

The Only Thing We Know For Sure…

Zen and the art of making a bacon sandwich

Nothing. We don’t know anything for sure. This is true for the effects of global warming to what we’re going to have for lunch. Let’s put politics aside and look at lunch.

Let’s say you’re going to make a BLT. You have all the usual ingredients; you know how this is going to turn out, right? Not so fast, Mr. Bond. There are variables in play.

The amount of mayo you spread. The type and ripeness of the tomatoes, the type and crispness of the bacon and the type and freshness of the bread. All subject to environmental factors after purchase, including temperature and humidity.

Your emotional and physical state determine how you make your BLT. Slowly? Quickly? Generously? Parsimoniously?

Your finished BLT may taste the same as every other BLT you've ever made, but it is not identical to any BLT you’ve ever made.

The final sandwich is only predictable within certain parameters. You didn’t know for sure exactly how your BLT would look, feel or taste. There were too many variables. There will always be too many variables.

That caveat applies to everything you do, from writing a Substack post to having sex, to taking a shower after.

And yet when a person, place, thing or event fails to live up to our expectations, we often experience disappointment, anger, frustration, depression, self-recrimination. It reminds us we can’t control life as much as we want to, or think we should.

The Stoics recognized this angst as the universal condition. They concluded that all we can really control is our reaction to the difference between expectation and reality (what English majors call irony).

As a former hypnotist, I’d argue the point. But not here. Suffice it to say, there are two common and diametrically opposed ways of thinking about this inescapable gulf: optimism and pessimism.

Benjamin Franklin is often attributed to the quote, "I'd rather be a pessimist because then I can only be pleasantly surprised.” Thanks but – I know very few pessimists prone to pleasant surprise.

On the other hand, Mark Twain is known for the quote, "It's better to be an optimist who is sometimes wrong than a pessimist who is always right.” Thanks but – pessimists aren’t always right.

Winston Churchill said “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Thanks but – seeing opportunity isn’t the same as realizing it, and mentioning it can make you a PITA to people who don’t share your vision.

There is only one really good way to be at peace with uncertainty: accept it. Expect the unexpected or, alternatively, expect nothing. Then, as my friend and decorated veteran Jon Wayne Taylor counsels, adapt, improvise, survive.

What’s required for inner peace and external success: ditching the bifurcated ways of thinking.

I’m not talking about eliminating negative thinking. Nor am I counseling anyone to think positively. As far as I can tell, it’s about doing both and then… not thinking.

For example, an important test. To clear your mind of worry, doubt, fear and complacency (performance killers all), begin by thinking about the worst that can happen.

I fail. Not negative enough! I fail and never get a good job. Keep going! I never get a good job and never earn enough money to raise a family. And? I’m forever single, poor and miserable. At some point, I kill myself.

Next, think positive! I pass the test, get a great job, meet the woman/man/them of my dreams, raise a family and find love, success and happiness.

Here’s the kicker: which of these is likely to happen? Answer: you don’t know. If you know the future, skip the test and buy a lottery ticket.

Clear Your Mind

Once you accept future uncertainty, once you’ve cleared your mind, take the test, do your best and see what happens. Knowing that you’re not in control of all the variables that determine the outcome.

In other words, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

The quote comes to us from John Allen Paulos, a mathematician. A man who inhabits the world where one plus one always equals two. Except in Modulo-2 arithmetic (essential in computer science) where 1 + 1 is equal to 0, not 2.

Atomic Pile

Equally, everything in the material world is made up atoms in motion. Where does “one” thing start and end?

Just as we live with the uncertainty of matter on the atomic and subatomic level – it doesn’t stop us from making a BLT – we can live with the uncertainty of life on the emotional and psychological level.

To do so, we need to consider the positive and negative outcomes of any particular action, then surrender ourselves to the fact that we have limited control over the outcome.

We don’t know what’s going to happen. So fuhgeddaboutit. Enjoy the ride. And the trick to crispy bacon is to constantly turn it in the pan. At least it was the last time I did it.

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