Challenge and Opportunity: A Commentary on Uncertainty Through a Contemporary Lens

When we talk about the future, we transform into a superhuman being, where the belief that we can predict what will happen – let’s say – in twenty years, prevails. The human need for security and certainty is broken when we realize that we have no idea what will happen. Since I began studying German literature and philosophy, I have been accompanied for three years by the question whether it is bad that I do not really know what will become of me. Although I still do not know what will become of me, the uncertainty does not bother me today as it did three years ago. 

Text: Marie Fenzl, German Literature, History, Philosophy
Illustration: Gislaug Østerås Sandberg

When I thought about my future three years ago, there was a white wall – open to many possibilities. There were moments when my heart did not know how to pump, because of this tremendous fear of making the wrong choice. The future being so unknown and without any real guarantee, especially today, can jump start the cold sweat of fear and great shortness of breath at any given moment. In today’s day and age, knowledge is continuously expanding. Our earth is getting smaller and smaller and everyone knows what is happening on the other side of the globe. But for the future, it eludes our omniscience. So, what if I do choose the “wrong” path? One with a dead end. One with a lesser chance of safety. Or one with lots of money but little chance of happiness in the end.  

The Generation of Millennials: Masters of Inconsistency 

But things are not that simple after all. Is not the generation of Millennials actually responsible for the fact that there are many paths available to choose from? As part of this generation, I observe and experience how difficult it is nowadays to make commitments, either to commit to something present or to a plan a week in advance. How can this be combined with the longing for simpler times, when things were homemade and soap was just soap. We are hippies with a bourgeois frame of mind, with a growing need for security and fear of the unpredictable future. Climate catastrophes, wars, political tensions or economically difficult times – we are facing the complication of the problems that come with an increasingly differentiated society. Do we now have too many options, despite wanting so many pathways?  

Perhaps we love the freedom that comes with having many options. The possibilities that we do not need to foresee, but which forces a fixation on our own personal future and distract us from the all-encompassing future of the world, which is even less known. But perhaps the possibilities have not necessarily opened up so radically, perhaps it is our mentality that opposes the future in a different way. Perhaps it is a new, open way in which we encounter the world that opens up new paths and no longer gives everyone the certainty of a clearly defined future. Perhaps that is a good thing, after all, one could assume that moving forward the future will continue to become more comprehensive, innovative and economical. 

Different Perspectives 

While the society, which is becoming more and more differentiated in its tendencies towards pluralization, appears on some days to be the incarnation of uncertainty, on other days it offers so much more. For three years I have now been exploring the humanities. The most frequently asked question in Germany is also known here in Norway: “And what do you want to be when you have finished your studies?” The question was probably easier to answer as a child than it is today. At the beginning of my studies I hated it, feared it, rolled my eyes and answered uncertainly: “I don’t know yet.” At the time, I was annoyed by it.  

Today I know: that is good! Why should this tree, which is still growing and does not yet know in which direction it will one day rise into the air, already know today how the wind will blow in fifteen years? Instead of focusing on the still unclear future, we could live in the moment. Instead of asking, “What will you do with it later?” we could ask, “What made you study what you study?”. I am glad that I do not know yet what I will be – that so many paths will be open. That it’s time to make mistakes, as the movies say in every corny American high school graduation speech.  

Opportunities Rather Than Crisis 

From the current situation, we can think about what is coming – we certainly cannot predict it. Sometimes I wish there was still a place like Delphi where I could at least be shown a direction. But then what? Uncertainty about the future does not mean being unable to steer the future. Uncertainty about the path we take does not mean it will be the wrong path. It will be a path full of experience, which in the end is the fulfilment and goal people intend to achieve.  Nevertheless, the situation is overstretching.  

More than half of the Millennials’ generation is going through the so-called “quarter-life crisis”, according to a study from the UK (The Independent). This is precisely the phase in life that is characterized by a state of uncertainty. This crisis can be identified in the phase of life after “coming of age”, i.e. in your twenties. Frustration, high conflict potential in relationships, fear of the future, dissatisfaction, nostalgia and loneliness are side effects of the quarter-life crisis. All that, which at first sight appears to be unbelievably depressing and frightening, clouds the actually ‘easy years’ of the twenties.  

At the same time, and this gives a spark of hope, all these rather unpleasant effects also cause personal growth and new possibilities: openness and curiosity, the desire to test oneself – all this is also part of the quarter-life crisis. So why don’t we step away from the ageing, sometimes omnipresent black and white way of thinking, with our heads held high and face the future, which has never been so open as it is now? Why don’t we accept these possibilities and also our apparently diagnosed crisis as a gift, that sometimes tugs at our nerves, but will not tear them apart? Let us change our understanding of the word “crisis” and see the situation of our twenties rather as change that offers new ways and shows new possibilities. 

Meadow on Which IGrows 

Simone de Beauvoir attributed the fundamental characteristic of freedom to man in the last century. At that time, she was referring mainly to the freedom that has long been denied to women. But she attests to something that is of unquestionable relevance today and sometimes seems to be no longer said: we are free. As free as never before. I do not need to know today what I will be working on tomorrow. I can decide for this freedom on my own. Perhaps all these ways are overstraining. Or maybe not, because a direction is given.  

The humanities have taught me to see more. To see more beyond the tip of my nose and not to find a wall there. Rather, I now stand in a meadow covered with green blades of grass, where the freshly planted seeds are watered. Where young trees are putting down their roots. Everything is possible. We do not have to decide now where we want to be in ten years. We do not have to know who we will be. Sometimes that can be frightening. Sometimes the unpredictable future still brings beads of sweat to my brow. But at least I know that what I am doing right now is what keeps me growing. That out of these uncertain times, a strong personality grows. I have come to this conclusion: Instead of letting myself be determined by the uncertain future and even if all these possible paths I can take are sometimes overstraining me, why shouldn’t I simply accept the challenge and declare my path as my goal. So yes, the future is changing and cannot be predicted. There is an uncertainty, there are many paths. But in the end that is a good thing. 

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