Contingency plans and guaranteed uncertainty: A personal essay

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Gavin Sagastume/Staff

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My best friend in the whole wide world told me that the secret to anything is contingency. She and I are infamous for texting each other uber-cryptic, generalizing conclusions about life, at least to the extent of how we’ve currently experienced it. When Winnie told me this, I expected a page-long rant regarding the intricate mysteries of the future and how life entwines with choice.

What she really meant was that using the word “contingency” on an academic thesis statement was typically deceptively advanced enough to earn a good grade on a paper.

Nevertheless, this got me thinking. Winnie wasn’t necessarily wrong — everyone in life has a Plan. And then they have Plan Bs, Plan Cs, and plans for just about every other letter in the alphabet. It’s human nature to have doubts and fears about the choices we make, to feel the need to brace for hidden variables that might risk the lives we are working towards. 

At the risk of compromising my writing credibility, I’m going to go ahead and Google define a word. Contingency refers to “a future event or circumstance which is possible but cannot be predicted with certainty.” In other words, a load of crap.

To me, this sounds like saying that something, somewhere will somehow happen, maybe — and then building an entire life around that. 

As a college freshman, I’ve dipped my toe into the grown-up world of interviewing. And every time I am asked where I see myself in five, 10 or 20 years, I lie. 

I lie because I don’t know the answer, and I’m not sure when that became something to be afraid of. 

In high school, it was okay not to know what you wanted to be, because you still had plenty of time to figure it out. When we applied for college, it was fine if you weren’t ready to commit to a major, because there would be time to switch tracks. But this semester, with my prerequisite classes taken and my turn to enter the job market rapidly approaching, it has felt like what was once a world of possibility has instantaneously shrunk around me, clinging to me like bubble wrap and stealing away the breath I’d thought I could still take. 

I thought I would give consulting a try. Then it was law school. On a particularly existential day, I nearly let two of my friends convince me to switch into computer science. Never in my life have I ever expressed an interest in computer science. 

But I’ve been told that computer science is secure. In a world of uncertainty and a culture of intensity, there is pressure to find security. And if it does not come naturally, maybe we force it. 

This whole process of mentally flip-flopping across career paths and interests made me the most anxious I’ve felt in my life. I’ve spent so many nights crying in the courtyard to my mother over the phone because I was so lonely and lost. She constantly reassured me that I was doing fine: no one has it all figured out, and even earning a degree in a specific major wouldn’t dictate my life plans. I heard her, I saw the logic behind her words — and I still felt miserable. 

For months, I became scared of choosing wrong, and so I became scared of everything. I withdrew. I went to class and I went home. I was afraid of the faces I might see in a crowd and the ones I never did find. I stopped writing. I feared I was the roommate who hogged the room, but couldn’t find the motivation to leave it. I saw my friends on weekends, then fell right back into a slump come Monday.

But self-pity and constant dread of  the future isn’t sustainable. I wanted to feel better. And I realized that 18 is too young to feel as if I’ve run out of time.

I realized that 18 is too young to feel as if I’ve run out of time.

The issue with contingency plans is that they are contingent upon the idea that everything in life can be planned — that if we just evaluate a situation for long enough, we’ll be prepared for anything. But some point we have to ask ourselves: Is all this planning holding us back? Have we found stability in our structure, or are we restricting ourselves to one path because it feels easier than struggling through the infinite options that life presents us with?

Because there really are an infinite amount of counterfactual situations to every choice we make. There are theorized parallel universes where every single time a decision gets made, worlds split off into separate timelines that play out the consequences of that choice. Maybe somehow, somewhere, a dropped ice cream cone snowballs into the prevention of World War II. 

But all these theories, these spinning universes of alternate realities in the grand scheme of infinite possibility, amount to just that: theory. In the end, we only get one lifetime. I still haven’t figured it all out, but slowly crossing out the things I’ve tried and disliked has helped me narrow down the direction I want to go.

Despite having learned this, there will always still be a part of me that mourns all the lives I will never get to lead because I chose this one. But my father once told me that sometimes making the wrong choice is better than making no choice at all. Mistakes can be managed; stagnancy cannot. And perhaps there are not really “wrong choices,” merely choices with consequences that lead to more choices yet. There is beauty in choice, and there is privilege in being able to exercise it. In my experience, it is far kinder to myself to feel gratitude rather than dread as I look to the future.

There is beauty in choice, and there is privilege in being able to exercise it.  

I don’t know where I’m going to be in ten years. I can’t tell you where I’ll live or what I’ll do. But I know that I’m no longer afraid of it.

Contact Alyson Lee at [email protected].