Everyone wants the guarantee, the knowledge that it will be alright in the end. During uncertain times, when health or livelihoods are at stake, we want to have the promise that we will make it out the other side. When this cannot be genuinely assured, we may often settle for false assurance, the opinion of an “expert”, the actions of the government, or pithy statements of everything being alright in the end. The selection bias guarantees that for those who are around in the end, it went okay to some extent, less so those that are no longer around to poll.
One of the more common questions that I heard in the Emergency Room from the families of patients echoed this desire for assurance.
“Are they going to be alright?”
Oftentimes this was a question that could be easily answer. Yes, their injuries are limited to a sprain or a strain. Other times the question was more complex. They will likely survive but they may have some deficits. Yet other times the best answer was that we did not know but would do everything we could. In medical practice it is critical that we do not provide false assurances even when that is the easiest and most temporarily satisfying solution.
Outside of medicine, there is less taboo against false assurances. Financial institutions attempt to convince you that your investments with them are safe from market volatility or losses. They often demonstrate this by pointing to impressive statistics extending back to the market trends of the early-to-mid 1900’s. Interestingly, they don’t extend farther back than 2 or 3 generations at the most. Car sales men and women highlight the safety ratings of the vehicle. Car seats for children emphasize increased safety even if that comes at increased cost. Universities show rates of employment following graduation, test preparation companies will “guarantee” a particular score, many products will “guarantee” your satisfaction with their product.
In the end assurances or guarantees are almost always empty. At best they may promise or provide an exchange for a lesser entity than what they were guaranteeing. They cannot guarantee that you will like the product, instead they can only assure you that they will take it back if you do not like it. They cannot guarantee a job or a score, but perhaps can assure you that part of your tuition will be refunded if you do not achieve one of these important milestone. There are probabilities, possible outcomes, and preparations. Anything more than that is empty assurance for things that cannot be known. Life insurance does not guarantee life, disability insurance does not ensure healing, health insurance does not ensure health. There are no guarantees in life; anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
As much as everyone wants guarantees and assurances during uncertain times, we must recognize these guarantees and assurances for what they are: the hopes and attempts to sooth the panic mob by an equally uncertain leadership or expert.
Living with this uncertainty is a critical part of life. Recognizing that risks and rewards define life and that some risk is certainly acceptable, and in fact required, in order to live a robust life. Life in a bunker may be safe, but it comes at the cost of opportunities to help others, to be helped, to learn, to love, and to grow. Instead of settling for false assurances, joyfully take calculated risks to embrace living instead of huddling down in the twilight zone of safety.