Advocating for Uncertainty

Photo credit: Roger Lew, CC BY 2.0.

Halfway through 2017, I got a full time job. I left the three smaller jobs in the dust, took one week off for myself, and got back in the saddle as a full-time employee, with an office, a keycard to get into the building, and a “work computer” — not a clever nickname given to my actual computer, but one that is official and belongs to the company.

Adjustment to office life has been easy; after half a year spent working at a feverish pace to manage three freelance jobs, I have settled into the rigors of office life. Financially, I am stable: I get a paycheck every two weeks and I always know exactly how much money it is. This stability does not erase uncertainty, though. Even though I’m doing just fine, I know that nothing is guaranteed. A full-time job does is not meant to erase niggling thoughts about backup plans and escape routes. Uncertainty, then, reigns supreme — a constant reminder that your company, no matter how great, is not your friend and that it’s always good to have a plan in place should you wake up one morning, go to work, and find out that you’ve lost your job.

Advocating for maintaining a tiny but manageable level of anxiety, uncertainty, or heightened awareness feels dubious, but keeping a tiny bit of that oh-shit feeling really keeps one on their toes. Don’t seek out the uncertainty, making mountains out of relative molehills, but do understand in your heart of hearts: everything could change and you should certainly have a backup plan in case it does.

I feel lucky that the way I worked for the first half of 2017 provided me with the funds to craft a backup plan should I need it. The goal for 2017’s last gasps is to really lay that plan out: how much money will I need to live for three months should I lose my job? What relationships do I need to resurrect? What can I do to make myself not feel like screaming into a throw pillow if I find myself at the mercy of a freelancer’s schedule again, having to create structure out of the shaggy, doughy remains of a day?

Right now, the only solid part of the plan is the dollar amount: if I have $7,000 in my savings left after I’ve paid my taxes, I will feel okay to take a teensy bit of time before deciding on my next move. I will be able to pay my rent, manage my bills, and live my life. I could ostensibly go somewhere other than New York for a few days or a week. I could treat a sudden bout of unemployment not as a reason to panic but as an opportunity to collect my thoughts.

Any break from work, forced or otherwise, is really a chance to think. No one takes that chance as much as they could; a casual Tuesday off for no real reason other than an excess of vacation days easily turns into a day for other errands or, somehow worse, a sludgy torpor spent nestled in the middle of the sofa, numbly watching The Crown, falling asleep every other episode. The impulse to fill any potential gaps in long-term employment with these activities is because a day of nothing except thinking is uniquely terrifying.

Having a good think often begets uncertainty; if you sit down and ask yourself what you really want to be doing or even what you sort of want in the meantime, the answer is less a definitive statement and more a multi-tentacled beast, with outcomes upon outcomes to consider. If I tell myself that I’m going to move to New Orleans if I lose my job, maybe I won’t be able to find enough work to survive; I’ll have to get a car, which means I’ll have to learn how to drive. What if I don’t pass my driver’s test, ever, and also, what if I end up a decrepit, license-free old woman, trapped, because of my inability to do what 16-year-olds do every day? Are any of these decisions ones that make sense for me as a person; furthermore, what does it even mean to “make sense” for “me as a person?” Why am I assuming that I should know what makes sense when personhood and life are merely an interlinked series of coincidences that no one could possibly predict, spread out over vast stretches of boredom and laughter?

An ex-boyfriend once accused me of engaging in circular logic, amazed at my ability to reason my way back to my starting point. If I were to continue this line of uncertainty, I’d surely end up in the same place, but whatever happens along the way is the most valuable. Not every stray thought turns into a simmering stew of anxious thoughts, but sometimes it’s okay to go with it, just for a minute or two.

I don’t know if I will lose my job in 2018. I don’t know much of anything except for maybe the next three hours. I could get a phone call and my entire life could change. Tomorrow I could wake up and have suddenly lost half my teeth. Uncertainty is inescapable; it permeates every layer of life, and it is not “solved” by full-time employment, pet ownership, marriage, or a routine. It just is. In 2018, I’ll learn to lean into it more.

Megan Reynolds misses The Billfold.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Our Uncertain Year series.

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