…by Theoklitos / from Greece / studying PhD Precision Medicine / 3rd Year
If someone asked me years from now, this is the one word I would use to describe what living life in early 2020 was like. It is of course entirely unnecessary to describe in detail the current situation, as countless words have already been written and spoken about it. And unless you are a hermit living in a remote island without any link to civilization (which is very unlikely, because then how are you reading this post?), your daily life has been affected in multiple ways already. Personally, I have been fortunate enough to not be affected in any major way, namely health issues for my family or me, major economic hardship, or any severe limitation of my daily activities, yet. Of course, the same isn’t true for many people out there and I sincerely hope that you are not one of them.
My day-to-day life has been affected mostly in that I have stopped doing any experimental work. It’s unclear how long this measure will be in place, but I think it’s unlikely to be lifted in the next month or two. It is uncertain. In light of the circumstances, my supervisor and I have discussed an extension to my PhD or a temporary interruption of studies. Will these be granted, and will I still be funded if so? It is uncertain. At the start of the lockdown, my supervisor suggested that I start writing my thesis to make the best use of this forced no-experiment time. Obviously, it’s the best course of action, but with it comes more uncertainty. Where do I begin? Have I done enough? Will this be of any value? I still need experimental results to write this, when will I be able to get them? I’m sure you’re probably facing similar thoughts and feelings about your own studies or work and, although it is by no means the worst situation anyone is in right now, our immediate problems are usually what’s most significant to us.
There have been many articles, videos, tweets, Instagram posts etc suggesting ways to make the best of your time at home. Bodyweight exercises, learning that new language you always wanted, being creative, knitting. Cook more, read more books, tidy up your place. This is not meant to be that kind of post. Although, I wouldn’t deny the value of the above activities for keeping your sanity, I would say they are a form of escapism. I’d say they’re not so different from playing video games, binge-watching tv series, or endlessly scrolling social media.
All of the above is a way for us to avoid the uncertainty that comes with the current situation. Uncertainty, of course, is an uncomfortable feeling, which is why we want to avoid it. We have carefully engineered our daily lives to minimize uncertainty in as many forms as we can. And now that we have been forced out of normality, we grasp for new ways of controlling our world and our experience, so that we don’t have to endure uncertainty a moment longer than we have to. I believe it stems from the ultimate human uncertainty: death. Our society is structured in a way that protects us from having to think about our own mortality, elevating the denial of death to its highest value (whether it be through YOLO-driven hedonism, having kids, or our own “immortality projects”, see “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker).
Well, I want to argue that this is the time to dwell on uncertainty and not shy away from it. It is a good time to give up our illusion of control, if only for the briefest moment. Uncertainty is a constant companion in our lives, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. And I think that acknowledging it produces less anxiety and suffering in the long run. Accepting the uncomfortable truth of our own mortality frees us from the shackles of that reality. Let’s all just sit in uncertainty for a while instead of self-medicating with our poison of choice.
For me, that means that the next time I sit down to write a part of my thesis and I’m confronted with the uncertainty of my academic progress and value, and that feeling in my gut rises that tells me “run away, do something else!”, I should just sit with it for a little while. Be okay with the uncertainty. And then do it anyway.