My fellow Americans, if you are pacing in a jittery jangle of anxiety on this eve of Election Day, sit yourself down and read this interview in The Atlantic. The interviewee is my friend and Harvard classmate Jordan Ellenberg – mathematician, writer, and really great guy – and the article centers around the unease around election forecasting.
I highly recommend you read it, but if you don’t, let me pull out some interesting takeaways. First, a thought about probability:
According to some philosophers of mathematics, probability is a measure of your feelings. It’s a measure of your degree of belief in some proposition.Jordon Ellenberg
It’s hard to separate our emotions from the endless prognosticating that has bombarded our collective consciousness for months. The fact that it has reached a deafening crescendo in these last days is certainly adding to the angst. Our inability to separate our feelings from forecasting, to stop obsessing over the probabilities of the outcome of a single event over which we have next to no control (yes, I know, every vote counts, but you get my meaning!) – it’s a huge challenge.
But here’s the thing; we try to create meaning in statistical probabilities and tie ourselves and our feelings of safety around a predicted outcome. And that’s just a recipe for psychological disaster. Because the probability of one thing happening doesn’t discount the possibility, however remote, of something else happening.
Do I have you tied up in mental knots yet?
I think the most helpful bit, for me, was this closing thought:
A good mental-health question to ask yourself is: What am I actually gaining from trying to figure this out now? None of us sitting at home is going to decide the election. The meaningful actions we’re going to take in support of our preferred candidate at every level have mostly been taken, or decided. So what are we gaining? We’re all about to find out the answer. Our epistemic situation when we know the outcome of the election will be the exact same no matter how hard we think about it right now. Our stress affects nothing.Jordon Ellenberg
I didn’t watch any of the presidential or vice presidential debates – I watched/read about highlights on various media outlets. I’ve neither joined supporters of my candidate in the echo chambers of the internet, nor have I participated in the increasingly disgracious discourse that is peeling the veneer of civility in this very divided country.
It’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I have a healthy sense of self-preservation. Because unless I’m doing something substantive that may affect the outcome of this election – volunteering for a campaign, fundraising, sending get out to vote messages – speaking in circles of reassurance with people who agree with me, or lambasting those who don’t, will do nothing to change the future. And obsessing over the unknown causes an unbelievable amount of stress.
We obsess over things, we humans. I do it too. And part of the obsession is the deceptive feeling of control we have when we spend time thinking about a situation. If it’s on our minds, if we’re talking about it, it gives us the illusion that we have some sort of control over it.
Of course, what we are doing then is simply trying to soothe our discomfort with uncertainty.
But while uncertainty is uncomfortable, it is far less agonizing than the suffering we create for ourselves through our obsessive thoughts. And I don’t want to suffer. And I don’t want anyone else to suffer.
This is a stressful time. I’m stressed. You’re stressed. Let’s face it, the entire world is stressed. But on this eve of a momentous election, I’m choosing to accept that I don’t know the outcome, regardless of likelihood one way or the other. I’m choosing to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty, because that very act opens up a small, calm space within me. I’m choosing not to create my own suffering.
I hope you choose to sit calmly with uncertainty, too. Because there will continue to be a lot of it, election or not.