To Live with Uncertainty

W. David Curtiss - Ithaca, New York
Broadcast during the 1950s
W. David Curtiss
Cornell University photo

Pearl Harbor was a life-changing event in the minds of most Americans who lived through it. Gone were the feelings of certainty and security that were prevalent before that day. W. David Curtiss came to believe in the importance of adapting to the new reality and learning to live with uncertainty.

Themes: change
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By the time I had become a senior in high school, I had my plans for a career well in mind. I would go to college, continue on through law school, and then hang out my shingle in my hometown. It seemed very important to me at that time to have a definite and detailed schedule of plans mapped out. Everyone did. The possibility that there might be major changes in these plans was something that hardly occurred to me.

As a matter of fact, I did carry out this schedule until Pearl Harbor brought my practice to an abrupt halt at the end of two years. For the next four years, I could do little planning more than a week or so in advance. It couldn’t be otherwise in the Navy. The certainty and security that had seemed so important eight years before were gone. The ability to make plans with a reasonable expectation of being able to achieve them had disappeared for me.

It seems to me that this is true for everyone today, although it affects each of us in different ways. There is an increasing number of children who are products of broken homes. There are young adults compelled to choose among conflicting moral standards. There are young men who must postpone further education or marriage or families because of a military situation that seems to have no foreseeable end. There are senior citizens faced with problems of retirement at a time when they still have many productive years ahead.

I believe that it is wishful thinking for anyone to expect a return to the good old days of certainty and stability, since change and uncertainty are among the most characteristic aspects of our times. This being true, I came to realize that the important thing in life was to learn to accept these changes, to live with uncertainty, and, above all, to be flexible enough to adjust to whatever situations might arise.

I will admit that, at first, my attitude was one of resignation. I was not unlike one of our law students, who recently asked a colleague of mine for an extension of time on a paper due that day. When his request was refused, the student commented, “Well, I’ll accept the inevitable.” To this my colleague made the well known reply, “Young man, you’d better.”

So at first, I tried to meet unforeseen problems in situations, simply because I recognized them as inevitable. But I still resented, somewhat, having to do so. But in the last few years, I have come believe that one should live effectively with change, not because it cannot be escaped, but rather because one can find adventure and splendor in doing so. I like what Pearl Buck wrote: “To live in security when others are insecure, to have peace and safety when others have the despairs and the horrors of war, to be rich when others are poor, is to miss the happiness of belonging to one’s world and of helping to shape it and change it.”

I believe, then, that life can be adventurous and rewarding—not in spite of change and insecurity but because of them. But I also believe that I need not and, indeed, cannot achieve this on my own but only through a belief in, and partnership with, God.

W. David Curtiss started practicing law in his hometown of Sodus, New York, and was appointed district attorney of Wayne County. After World War II, Curtiss became a teacher, serving on the law faculty of Cornell University as associate professor and as associate dean. He retired from teaching in 1986.