Cosmic curve balls: how to deal with the unpredictability of life


Cosmic curve balls: how to deal with the unpredictability of life
As human beings, we like to feel that if we plan well and work hard, our diligence will be rewarded and good things will come our way. However, it's wise (and good for mental health) to recognise that certain things are beyond our control.

Even stars like Adele have shown us how hard this unpredictability can be on our mental health. Recently, the British singer broke down in tears as she announced that she’s been forced to delay the start of her highly-anticipated concert series in Las Vegas.

“I’m gutted — I’m sorry it’s so last minute, we’ve been awake for over 30 hours trying to figure it out and we’ve run out of time. I’m so upset and I’m really embarrassed and so sorry to everyone that travelled to get [to the show]. I’m really, really sorry,” she said.

Psychiatrist Dr Rob Selzer shares his advice for navigating life’s curve balls…

Roz beamed at me from behind her laptop. “I’ve got this totally nailed!” There, on an Excel spreadsheet, was her master plan. Now that the kids were well into high school and she was back to full-time work with a growing practice and staff, she and her family were finally looking to move out of their pokey, semi- detached, semi-solid, red-brick clinker. They could afford it, Roz said, but only if they cut corners here and there, and only if she planned for every possible contingency.

And so there on her screen she’d spreadsheeted them all: If mortgage rates increased by one or two or three per cent, if inflation spiralled out of control, if the new house required restumping, replumbing or rewiring, or if the limping family car finally demanded replacing.

Everything except for one tiny unforeseen and unlikely circumstance: a week after they’d signed the contract on their new home, dazed and incredulous, Roz staggered out of the bathroom clutching a tiny stick hitting her a giant curve ball. On it was a big plus sign. Roz comes to mind whenever curve balls come my way.

To be sure, hers was an ultimately joyous one, but it highlights nonetheless that no matter how well we might plan, circumstances can change. And if the past 18 months have proven anything, it is just that. Some of us have been lucky, spared the misfortunes of friends and neighbours who are doing it tough.

Some of us have been able, through cosmic good fortune, to carry on with our lives safe and secure in health, family and work. Armed with this good fortune, what have we learnt? One of my lessons has been about making plans.

How the best-laid ones can be torpedoed in the blink of a government press release: our daughter’s Year 12 graduation night, a landmark in many teenagers’ lives was scuttled; a friend, desperate to go bush because nail-biting days at work were spilling over into sleepless nights, had his hopes dashed at the last minute; an interstate family get-together for a 50th birthday planned for months was kiboshed the week before they were all due to descend on Sydney.

The graduation, the bush respite, the big family celebration, these are doubtless all significant things, but I’ve learnt that there is a subtle yet important difference between the events themselves and the planning for them.

We’ve been taught our entire lives that hard work should be rewarded, so if we’ve put a ton of effort into planning an event, it is somehow owed to us. It is thus possible to fall into the trap of feeling cheated if we miss out. Who can blame us? But here’s the thing: the cosmos, the same one that has afforded me such privilege in so many areas of life, doesn’t bother itself with my plans; some things are really beyond my control.

Thinking that with enough completed to-do lists my plans must always go exactly my way is the very definition of hubris (OK, I had to look up the definition, but I did discover that in Greek mythology, protagonists like me were brought down a notch or two by the gods for having overstepped the mark).

Sadly, I am not the centre of the universe. And it’s not just me. Even though they are armed with cutting-edge medical advice, vast resources and, one must assume, the best of intentions, our leaders and experts have had their plans upended. Not even quantum super-computers capable of peering 13.8 billion years into the past to the birth of the universe can predict with absolute certainty if the local under-11s will be lacing up next Sunday.

There exists always an element of chance. We can try to reduce the randomness but, as in Zeno’s Paradox, that fraction will never, ever be zero. No-one, not even the most powerful and well resourced, can outwit all the unknowns. None of us has the sorcery of 20/20 future vision. (The certainty of climate change is a whole other story but I think you get my point.)

A good friend has a beautiful take on this. She was so befuddled by having to constantly rearrange her week of work, kids’ basketball, family dinners and other outings that she was tempted to give up on making plans altogether, wait until COVID was over before wrestling the family’s calendars back into line.

But then she had an ‘aha!’ moment, understanding that the solution wasn’t to abandon planning, but rather to find the humility in it; to come to terms with the notion that planning is both necessary and no guarantee. (Did I mention that she’s one of my smarter friends?) I like it so much I’m going to repeat it: planning is both necessary and no guarantee.

Something else about curve balls: people like to help you catch them. When I had to cancel our travel accommodation, the manager offered me a refund out of her own pocket until the company came through.

When close friends had a spanner thrown in the works by having to isolate for two weeks, the offers of support – practical, emotional, and culinary – galvanised our little social group just when we thought we couldn’t get any closer.

From baby showers to bar mitzvahs, I’ve seen arrangements suddenly pivot and guests bend over backward to lend a hand; an abruptly cancelled wedding had everyone from the hospitality staff to the limo driver pitching in to reorganise the celebrations.

Sure, not everyone will always be helpful or even accommodating, but enough are to make me feel good about humanity. And here’s another thing when plans go skew-whiff: it encourages us to find the meaning in them.

School graduations are about coming together as a community, celebrating achievements, and marking the end of an era, thus my daughter’s school masterfully reworked the graduation night into a COVID-compliant drive-in cinema event – one that no-one will ever forget.

My camping mate took off from work anyway. A bucolic bush setting would have been nice, but turning off his mobile phone, taking long walks with his wife and playing board games with the kids, he told me, turned out to be just the tonic he needed.

My pal with the interstate birthday bash says now that everything is already arranged all they have to do is find another date – and the best part is he still gets to look forward to it for another six months. Curve balls come in all shapes and sizes.

Roz still plans like a chess grandmaster, her plus sign now plays for the local under-11s, her business is booming, and that house, well it did need an addition. It goes to show that just because the cosmos holds the rule book it shouldn’t stop us from playing our part



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