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Embracing uncertainty: coming to terms with the dark side of the world we live in

Most of us genuinely care about issues like global warming, mass animal extinction, growing inequality, ongoing wars and environmental pollution. Moreover, we become ever more aware that our life-styles in western consumerist societies heavily contribute to these global issues. Still, it can be difficult to see what role we, as individuals, play in these problems and what role we have to play to solve them. The horrifying immensity of the problems can be overwhelming. This can easily lead to the feeling we have lost control and tempt us to just give up or to look away. Some people keep their optimism and argue that if we adopt the right life-style or make the right technological innovations, we will surely be able to turn things around. If there is one thing we can learn from philosophers Lisa Doeland, Naomi Jacobs and Elize de Mul, it is that the pessimistic as well as the optimistic approach won’t do.

Embracing our ‘doom’

In their lectures Lisa Doeland, Elize de Mul en Naomi Jacobs invited the audience to embrace the problems and difficulties of the world we live in. This mindset reflects the subtitle of their recently published book Onszelf voorbij – Kijken naar wat we liever niet zien (“Beyond ourselves – Looking at the things we’d rather not see”). In this book, as well as in their lectures, they highlighted some of the ways we tend to avoid looking at these ‘unseen’ things. They argue that in reaction to the sometimes dark world around us, people tend to focus on little things close to themselves in order to regain a feeling of control and stability. The lecture itself was appropriately titled “Doemdenken”, a Dutch word that refers to the fatalistic and pessimistic attitude of people thinking we are inevitably doomed. The attitude the philosophers themselves were promoting can be described as a flirtation with this ‘doemdenken’. They asked to acknowledge the apocalyptic magnitude of the world’s problems, without fatalistically giving in.

A false sense of control

Lisa Doeland made it clear that they were not advocating what she referred to as ‘pessimism-porn’. Just like the optimists shy away from the fact that we have lost control by presenting us with false hopes of easy solutions, fatalists restore their sense of control by believing in the certainty of an inevitable catastrophe. In this context both Doeland and Jacobs refer to our longing for cognitive closure: our longing for fast solutions and explanations. However, the problems we are faced with today cannot be explained or solved easily, they are in a sense beyond our control. The inability to make sense of the situation tempts us to invent stories that nonetheless provide us with feelings of certainty and control. Although such a reaction is understandable, the three philosophers encouraged the audience to avoid such a false sense of control, because this stops us from acknowledging how we need to change.

The human archive

Elize De Mul explained how the endless stream of photos shared on social media, can be understood as such an attempt to create an illusion of control and stability. The photos we make of ourselves, food, holidays and parties, often accompanied by a ‘filter’, creates what she calls an archive of ourselves, living a happy life unaffected by the problems reality confronts us with. She explains the tendency to record ourselves and our lives as a way to objectify and therewith reflect on ourselves. The general human capacity to reflect on themselves and the world around them, can easily become overwhelming and produce the feeling of uncertainty. By objectifying ourselves in pictures that frame us forever as happy beings in a joyful world, we avoid the nasty conclusions of reflecting on ourselves and the world as it really is.


Doeland discussed the strange relation people in consumerists society have with the waste collectively produced. We all know that the materials used for our products, designed to be quickly replaced with new products, and the plastic used to package them, are an important source of pollution. Still, we keep buying more and more stuff, and keep throwing the ‘old’ things away we no longer care for. Doeland refers to sustainability-optimism to note to the idea that we can continue this consumerist life-style, as long as we use sustainable materials and implement cradle-to-cradle into our production processes. According to her, this optimism will not help solving the real problem, which is the relation we have, or actually do not have, with our waste.

Loving Waste

Doeland suggests what she calls ‘afvalofilie’ – a love for waste – as a way to improve this relation. Opposed to mindlessly throwing away our waste, ending every relation we have with it, ‘afvalofilie’ means recognizing the relation we have with our waste, even after disposing ourselves of it. In other words, we should bring the problems and issues close to ourselves again. As an example she showed a shocking photo of an decomposing albatross, with its belly clearly filled with numerous plastic objects. Somewhat affected, moderator Cees Leijenhorst, remarks that he wants anything but to bring the decomposing albatross close to himself, to be reminded of it everyday. He mentions that that would make him very sad and pessimistic, and asks how connecting with these things does not lead to ‘doemdenken’. Doeland admitted that connecting with these problems is a painful thing to do, but that it is a process you have to go through. Only by constantly remembering yourself of your relation to these problems, she argued, can you start to change your ways.

Creating Bubbles

Finally, Jacobs focused on how we tend to make ourselves and our life-styles into objects we can manage and control, through things like mindfulness, healthy diets, yoga and self-help books. By focusing on these little things, and especially on ourselves, we create a ‘bubble’ or a ‘micro cosmos’ around us that fends of the big troubles of the world, she argued. Although a lot of these practices can certainly be helpful, and in themselves are not bad, she thinks that by focusing too much on individual problems we risk losing track of the enormous scale of the real issues we are collectively faced with. The responsibility for solving these big problems does not solely belong to the individual, but also to big companies and governments. According to Jacobs, focusing on yourself instead of addressing these bigger, structural problems, leads to the earlier mentioned forms of fake certainty.

Embracing uncertainty

As an answer to how we can deal with the uncertainty the world confronts us with, without falling back to the fake senses of certainty, Jacobs refers to Kierkegaard. She argues that we have to look for ways to acknowledge and eventually embrace our fears and uncertainties. As Kierkegaard has noted, she argued, in life we are constantly confronted with uncertainty, with the unfamiliar and with the ‘openness’ Our need for certainty and closure makes that this unfamiliar openness can be frightening. Still, this openness also has something attractive, Jacobs argued, since the openness points to something unexplored in which anything is still possible. In the place between this frightening uncertainty and attractive openness, Jacobs places ‘hope’. Embracing uncertainty means acknowledging the frightening reality of the problems we are faced with, while providing ourselves with the opportunity to act and take responsibility in the space left open in the uncertain future ahead of us.

Written by: Wouter Veldman