Uncertainty and Doing What Is at Hand

A meandering river, with rapids and rocks - life is like a winding river, uncertain

Uncertainty Surrounds Us

Uncertainty is the water we swim in. We know there will be shallows, eddies, rocks, white water, but we float down the river convinced those hazards are meant for someone else. Those whose bones have broken on boulders in the past may take extra care, wrapping themselves in padding or constructing boxes in which to hide, for we often learn something from our past. Nonetheless, we easily forgot and ignore our vulnerability.

We humans have many ways to protect ourselves. We can push people away by being nasty or irrational, by isolating, by acting crazy. Numbness and addiction keep us from feeling the pain of our past or noticing the misery of our present. Judging others, making assumptions, projecting our shame outside ourselves, are other techniques we use. We’re good at making up stories to justify our behavior and shelter that wounded part of ourselves from having to rise into consciousness. That injured part of us tends to be shy.

But no edifice, no imagined scenario, no rationalization, no dissociation can keep us from drowning when drowning comes to take us. Only acceptance allows us to glide gracefully under the surface and embrace the next adventure. For, no matter what we do, the next adventure will arrive.

Photo by Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau

Greek Tragedy

Sometimes, what we do to avoid catastrophe is exactly the thing that brings it about. We see this in many Greek tragedies, such as the play Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles.

It starts out with a prophecy. King Laius is told by the Oracle of Delphi that if he and his wife, Jocasta, ever have a son, he will end up killing his father and marrying his mother. To avoid this fate, Laius tries to keep from impregnating his wife, but eventually she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a boy. Frightened, Laius gives the child to a shepherd, instructing the man to leave the baby on the mountainside to die.

In Ancient Greece, infanticide was not uncommon. Even so, the shepherd felt pity for the boy, so brought him to another shepherd, who eventually gave him to the king and queen of Corinth. The couple raised the child as if he were their own, never telling him how he’d come to live with them.

As we can see, already two mistakes have left Oedipus open to committing the crimes prophesied for him. First, his birth father, believing his had the power to thwart the will of the gods, tries to murder his son. Then, when this fails, and the boy survives to be raised by another couple, the child’s foster parents hide the truth of his parentage. Thus, the path to Oedipus’ downfall is laid.

The Fatal Flaw

Greek tragedy, according to the scholar, Walter R. Agard, is less about our helplessness in the face of fate and more about the flaws that cause us to make poor choices. [1]

When Oedipus heard of the prophecy, he left home to avoid harming those he thought of as his parents. He set off for Thebes. On the way, he came upon a crossroads. There he met a man old enough to be his father who had come upon him in a chariot. The two got into an argument about who had the right of way, and Oedipus struck the older man dead.

Of course, we know this man is Laius, but Oedipus didn’t. Unaware of who he had killed, he continued on his way to Thebes. There he learned that the Sphinx was terrorizing the city, eating anyone who couldn’t solve her riddle. Oedipus was the first person to figure it the answer. In despair, the Sphinx threw herself from a cliff and died. Jocasta’s brother had vowed that anyone who rid the city of the monster would be given the widow’s hand in marriage. Thus, Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, a fate made possible because his father’s actions kept him from knowing the true identity of his parents.

It was not just Fate that caused the downfall of Oedipus and his family. In his article, “Fate and Freedom in Greek Tragedy,” Walter R. Agard points out that, while it may seem that Greek tragedies depended on prophecy and the whimsy of the gods, the playwrights were more interested in our tragic, human flaws. These cause us to act impulsively or foolishly, cruelly or jealously, thus leading to the disaster that befalls us.

Laius and Oedipus

We might think that Laius’s hardness of heart was his biggest flaw, for that allowed him to seek the death of his own son. But, as we noted above, the Ancient Greeks, did not consider it evil to expose an infant. Instead, what most interested Sophocles was Oedipus’ flaw, that of hubris.

Not that Oedipus was a bad person. The authors of Greek tragedies wanted to show how even great people suffer from shortcomings that lead to their downfall. Thus, Sophocles showed Oedipus to be a good king, one who sought truth, cared about justice, and loved his people. Indeed, Oedipus wanted so badly to avoid doing harm, that he fled from his adopted parents.

Not only did Oedipus think he understood his situation clearly enough to devise a proper remedy, but, like his birth father before him, he believed he had the power to avoid Fate.

As we know, trying to flee did not help him. Still, Oedipus wouldn’t have fulfilled the prophecy had he not been filled with pride, had his pride not made him angry when he felt slighted, had he not been impulsive in his anger, and had he not had the hubris to think he knew better than the Fates and the oracles. It’s not that the Fates or the Oracle determine the events in our lives. Prophecy is less about manipulating us or making things happen and more about predicting the natural consequences of our tragic flaws.

Sometimes Life Happens

But not everyone in the Greek plays met disaster because of foolishness, pride, or other human imperfection. Sometimes characters acted in defiance of the gods, or good people suffered terrible misery through no cause of their own. At that point, all they could do would be to choose their response. According to the Greek tragedians, the best choice was to meet their fate with courage and calm.

Giving the examples of the Trojan women who suffered at the hands of their captives, of Cassandra who was unjustly punished by Apollo, and Heracles who killed his own children when Hera besieged him with a fit of madness, Agard writes, “We can choose to save our own integrity.” [2] It seems that even for the Greeks, life sometimes happens to us, no matter what we do. At that point, all we can do is choose how we will respond.

Does this mean we should always accept fate as it comes, that we should never seek remedy or defy injustice? Of course not. We must realize, however, that life is uncertain. The future can never be seen. If Laius had accepted fate instead of fighting it, or if he had tried instead to raise Oedipus to love him, had nurtured his son and taught him gentleness, surely Oedipus would never have harmed him.

Yet he could not know that the remedy that came to him, the flawed idea that arose out of a flawed mind, would be what made it possible for his son to unthinkingly destroy him. We do the best we can, and sometimes it doesn’t work out so well. Sometimes, we slip under the water and are gone.

Trying to Avoid Loss

Everything Laius and Oedipus did was an attempt to avoid loss. Whether we want to save our own lives or protect those we love, we strive to hold onto what we have.

We see this in other Greek myths, as well. The sea nymph, Thetis, for instance, married a mortal man and gave birth to Achilles. Unable to bear the thought that the boy would grow old and die while she, an immortal, continued to live, she dipped him in the magical River Styx. In this way, Achilles would become invulnerable to injury. Unfortunately, as Thetis lowered the baby into the water, she gripped him by his heel. Untouched by the magic liquid, that one place remained unprotected. [3]

Nothing Thetis did caused his death, but her efforts were futile. We cling to what we have, as if we could stop time and decay. By trying to influence fate, we hope to control life’s uncertainty. Like Thetis’s, our attempts to avoid loss will fail.

Thetis Immerses Son Achilles in Water of River Styx by Antoine Borel, 18th Century

Refusing to Let Go

So we cling even when doing so doesn’t make sense. For instance, sometimes we’re better off without that thing we hold onto, such as an unsatisfying job or an abusive partner. Yet even a miserable certainty can seem preferable to a frightening uncertainty. We might try to convince ourselves that we’ll find a new job or a new lover, but we can’t know. The future holds no guarantees. That’s why it’s so hard to give up what we have.

It’s just as hard to accept an irrevocable loss. No matter what we do, we cannot bring the dead back to life. Though medical science is improving our ability to resuscitate those whose hearts have stopped, at a certain point, we must give up and let go. The mythic Orpheus, however, was unwilling to do that.

Orpheus was a gifted musician. When he played the lyre, streams held still that they could better hear him play, and trees and mountains drew close to listen. His music tamed the wild animals. His skill drew the attention of the nymph, Eurydice. The two fell in love and married. Their happiness was short-lived, however, for soon Eurydice was bitten by a poisonous snake and died.

Orpheus could not bear the loss. Life became meaningless. Unable to stand the torment of living without his beloved, he used his music to charm his way into the underworld. There, he sang of his grief to Hades and Persephone, softening their hearts so that they agreed to let Eurydice follow him back to the land of the living, provided Orpheus not turn back to look at her until they reached the Earth’s surface.

It Can’t Happen Here

Orpheus agreed, but he could not keep his promise. Fearful his beloved was not following him, after all, he turned around. In that instant, he lost her forever. Though he reached out to grasp her, stronger hands than his pulled her down into the darkness.

In their analysis of the story, Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke point out that, on some level, we act as if we were special, as if death might overlook us. We hope our beautiful music will mesmerize the gods of the underworld, for instance, so we will earn a reprieve. [4] Of course, we realize we are mortal. We understand that disasters happen. Yet most of us still wander through our days as if it weren’t true, at least for us. If we’re good enough or accomplished enough, surely tragedy will pass us by.

But snakes bite without warning. No matter how careful we are, no matter how thoroughly we organize our days, we can’t control everything. Uncertainty finds a way to interfere with our plans.

Of course, there’s a reason for this. If uncertainty did not exist, who among us would allow death in, and if we did not do that, what would happen to us? If nothing wore out, nothing disappeared, nothing died, we would have to stop creating art and clothing and homes. At some point, we would have to stop having children. Without uncertainty and the losses it brings, our lives would become meaningless. What would we have to strive for, to push against? Where would our lessons come from? We learn more from loss than from anything else.

Accepting Uncertainty

Not long ago, at the hospital, I visited with a man who had lost everything. A few of his family members had died, one violently. Because of the pandemic, his business failed. Stress built up at home until his wife kicked him out with nothing but his car. In that one moment, he lost his marriage, his children, his pets, his house.

Bereft and confused, he started driving. He wasn’t trying to get anywhere, nor was he trying to get away from anything. He hadn’t wanted to leave in the first place. It was more that, by driving, he was trying to avoid sitting still. In stillness, we discover the essence of our humanity. In stillness, we find our feelings. The man had no desire to feel anything. Indeed, he feared that if he felt his feelings, he would fall apart.

This was Orpheus’s challenge, too. Even after that second loss of his beloved, he refused to move through his grief. He sank into a deep sorrow, playing mournfully, wandering aimlessly, yet he was not able to finish the work of grieving, unable to embrace his pain and loneliness. Some say he committed suicide. Others claim that, in his misery, he fell into the power of the Maenads who tore him limb from limb. Whatever happened, Orpheus could not sustain his life without Eurydice.

Orpheus’ Sorrow by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, 1876

Some people never do recover from the traumas and losses an uncertain life brings them. They get trapped in depression, addiction, rage. Others flee, throwing themselves into adventures, into mindless travel, into distractions or obsessions.


If we are lucky, we find their way to the surface again. We accept the reality of uncertainty and choose life. Diving into our grief, we allow ourselves to fall apart, because only by shattering can we can put ourselves back together.

The patient I spoke with stayed on the road for months before deciding he wanted to live again. Then, he sought out help. By the time I met with him, he was starting to express his rage, his resentment, but also his sadness. He wept. He talked about his love for his family, the ache in his body and his soul. Even though he believed a man should never show weakness, he spoke of his sense of failure and his vulnerability. He was beginning to understand that true strength is found not in posturing or in pretending to be powerful, but in opening up our hearts to our pain. This is true courage.

In the past, the man had tried to force himself to be strong, to control events, to manage the people in his life. This desire to create certainty in a life that has none was his tragic flaw.

Sometimes, even for years, we can sustain the illusion that it is our efforts that keeps uncertainty at bay. One day, though, tragedy will find us all. The river will sweep us away, the rapids pull us under. Then, we will need to learn to breathe underwater. By letting go and surrendering to the reality of life, we can learn to swim in the whirlpool.

Do What Is At Hand

Greek tragedies explore one way to do this. Argard quotes the Chorus in Philoctetes by Sophocles. They say, “Your task is to do what is immediately at hand.” [5] We don’t know what the future will bring. Gods may laugh when we make plans, but that doesn’t mean planning is wrong. Nor is it wrong to order our days as best we can and take care to be safe. Just because there are no guarantees doesn’t mean we have no choices to make. We must do what seems best given what has been laid before us. When things do not go as we wish, when loved ones die, when injustice strikes, we can choose how we respond.

We can turn to despair, as Orpheus did, blind ourselves in our grief, as did Oedipus, or we can wake up as did the patient with whom I met.

We all have tragic flaws. Maybe we seek to numb our pain and anxiety through adventure or addiction, or we let hubris cloud our vision. We might refuse to accept responsibility for our downfall or throw temper tantrums, accusing others of wishing us ill. We can choose to proclaim our innocence and target our enemies, refuse to accept reality by rushing into the underworld to take back our beloved or by trying to protect our children for their entire lives.

But no matter how loudly we object, or how devious are our attempts to fool Fate, reality is what it is. One day, the river of uncertainty will overflow its banks and claim us. When that happens, we get to choose what we do next.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Agard, Walter R., “Fate and Freedom in Greek Tragedy,” The Classical Journal, vol. 29, no. 2, 1933, pp. 117–126, 121, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3290417, accessed 26 Nov. 2020.
  2. Ibid 124.
  3. See, for instance, Berens, E. M., The Myths and Legend of Ancient Greece and Rome, Bedfordshire, England: Andrews UK, 2010, 411.
  4. Greene, Liz and Juliet Sharman-Burke, The Mythic Journey: The Meaning of Myth as a Guide for Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, 240.
  5. Argard 122.

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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