Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Original cover art for THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT

Tolerating Uncertainty

by James Porter May 24, 2024

Pictured above: Original cover art for THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT

When my wife told me there was an exhibit at the Morgan Museum and Library in Manhattan of original drawings by author Beatrix Potter, I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to go. While I had grown up listening to and eventually reading her books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, I wasn’t at all sure this would mean anything to me now.

If you read my blog three weeks ago about going to see the eclipse, you’ll start to see some interesting parallels between these two “stories.” Both took place in New York. The Morgan library is in lower Manhattan while the zone of totality ran through upstate New York fairly near the Canadian border. In both cases, I had to battle with overcoming uncertainty in order to get myself to go. 

The weather forecast for the eclipse was cloudy and the weather forecast for the trip into Manhattan was looking like rain. I had no desire to walk around Manhattan in the pouring rain to see an exhibit about a children’s author who wrote some books a hundred years ago, just like I had no desire to drive six hours to upstate NY if I wasn't going to even see the eclipse. 

As it turned out the eclipse was incredible. And if I hadn’t been willing to tolerate some uncertainty about the weather, I would have never experienced what turned out to be a truly amazing event. But could a trip to NY on a rainy day, to see this Beatrix Potter exhibit, have even a small chance of such a satisfying pay off? I doubted it.

Park Ave Sculpture

But my wife talked me into going, boldly promising that the sun would come out by the time we got there and miraculously, just as it had in upstate NY, the clouds cleared, and it turned out to be a glorious spring day. We even passed by a series of interesting sculptures on our way to the museum on Park Avenue. The day was already turning out well.

When I turned the corner into a second room at The Morgan that focused on the drawings she did for her books, I was surprised to see an original copy of a handwritten note framed prominently on the wall. Potter had sent this note to a friend (who had small children). This letter would form the basis of an idea that would lead to a series of books that would one day sell over 250 million copies.

Beatrix Potter, seated next to her father and her Rupert and her Brother Bertrand
Beatrix Potter, seated next to her father and her Rupert and her Brother Bertrand

To see this big idea packed into one small piece of note paper really addled my brain. I listened on my phone to the museum recording of an actress reading the letter in the voice of Beatrix Potter. Buried in her handwriting in the note before me, I could see little rough sketches of Peter Rabbit, the mischievous bunny, who unlike his well-behaved siblings, was always getting into trouble. That was something I could relate to as a kid who had ADD before anybody knew what ADD was. Those books and those pictures drew me in and helped me learn how to read. 

Something about making this connection, 60 years later, really touched me deep inside. 

So my takeaway from these two somewhat parallel experiences is that despite hearing a voice in my ADD head that always second-guesses EVERY decision, sometimes I have to simply turn down the volume of that voice and forge ahead. That voice all too often creates paralysis by analysis. 

On Thursday of last week, I attended an all-day seminar on anxiety. The presenter, Dr. Mark Schneider said that anxious people have trouble tolerating uncertainty. “No one can predict the future,” he explained. “Thus, even anxious people have to make decisions based on the best information they have available and even if that information turns out to be faulty, you still have to keep making decisions.” Any decision is usually better than no decision. And this is how we learn to tolerate uncertainty. 

But when a decision turns out to result in seeing something spectacular like a total eclipse, or in reconnecting with an important part of your forgotten youth, you celebrate your good decisions while reminding yourself that at least a certain number of not-so-good decisions, are going to be sprinkled in between.  

James Porter
James Porter