“Uncertainty and Resolve”by David P. JohnsonVice President, Graduate Student Association
As I write this article, we are all awaiting the outcome of the largest conventional military attack in Europe since World War II. When the United States offered to evacuate President Zelensky from Ukraine, he replied, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” These inspiring words convey the resolve of the Ukrainian people to fight for a better future, rather than simply to throw up their hands and accept the inevitability of defeat.
Uncertainty about the future is a normal part of human existence. None of us can predict what tomorrow will look like. In 2019 many organizations chose a variation on “20/20 vision” as a theme for the year 2020. But despite such optimistic slogans, all of us were blindsided by the pandemic. I still remember the day I left the Cincinnati campus for the “last” time, just before all instruction shifted online. Thankfully, the faculty, students, administration, and staff of HUC-JIR responded well to the pandemic, taking the necessary actions to ensure that learning continued. It has been a joy to come together again in person for courses and other activities during this academic year.
Wars and pandemics are not alone in generating worries about the future. As I approach the mid-point of my final semester of coursework and look toward to preparing for comprehensive exams next year and my dissertation after that, I must admit that I feel some degree of anxiety. No doubt my fellow students can relate. Will I be able to pass my comps? Will I find an acceptable topic for my dissertation? Will that topic be approved? Will I secure a good job?
In the course on Stoicism with Professor Adam Kamesar last semester, I learned that the ancient Stoa believed there were four human emotions (pathē): (1) sadness (lypē), (2) pleasure (hēdonē), (3) fear (phobos), and (4) desire (epithymia). Clearly, the first two describe present experiences while the final two relate to potential future outcomes. Fear anticipates the possibility of sadness in the future and desire anticipates the possibility of future pleasure.
For the Stoics, all of these emotions were undesirable. Instead, they greatly idealized apatheia (the state of being without emotion), arguing that emotions held the potential to disturb one’s rationality. They would say that virtue is not to achieve or avoid some future outcome, but that it is its own reward. Stoics came to recommend certain correct rational responses (eupatheiai) as counterparts of the “bad” emotions mentioned above. The preferred equivalent to fear was caution (eulabeia) and the preferred equivalent to desire was wish or rational desire (boulēsis).
My takeaway from all this Stoic philosophy is an important reminder to focus the great majority of my thoughts, time, and energy on the things I can control and to limit my speculation and worry about things out of my control. That we should wish and work for good outcomes and exercise prudence and caution in order to avoid bad outcomes is axiomatic. But if I allow myself to think too often or too long about the uncertain future, I can easily become overwhelmed. And that emotional state can have a paralyzing effect. Focusing on what we cannot control about tomorrow drains our energy for accomplishing the tasks before us today. And our concrete accomplishments each day, of course, are precisely our means of bettering our own futures (to whatever degree possible).
The outcomes of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the short and long term remain uncertain and we are still unsure what the new normal will look like as we (hopefully!) enter the final stages of the pandemic. Additionally, we are all negotiating some degree of uncertainty about the future of our institutions, careers, and personal lives. Nevertheless, I hope we can all remain optimistic about the future and fill each day with positive, meaningful pursuits. While our collective efforts cannot make the future perfect, we can certainly make it better! I will sign off with the hopeful sentiment in Proverbs 10:24: וְתַאֲוַ֖ת צַדִּיקִ֣ים יִתֵּֽן (“The desire of the righteous will be granted.”)