The Walking Dead and Uncertainty
AMC’s The Walking Dead, now in its fourth season, is a television drama based on the comic book series bearing the same name by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard. Set in the state of Georgia, the show follows Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, who wakes up from a coma in a post-apocalyptic world fraught with “walkers” (i.e., zombies; although that word is never uttered on the show). As Rick comes across other people who have survived the chaos and carnage, including his wife and son, the series tells an evolving, suspenseful story about survival amidst danger and uncertainty.
As they navigate through this treacherous world, their resources are limited. They have to siphon cars for gas, make risky trips into abandoned stores for food and other supplies, and even conserve their ammunition when using firearms. Shelter is hard to come by, and not always secure. Hence, the main characters face a recurring dilemma—whether to stay where they are, or leave and risk their lives by looking for a safer refuge.
Different versions of this dilemma arise in each season. Whether the preferred option is to stay in a particular place, continue wandering from house to house collecting scraps, or venture out further, the characters can never be completely sure that they will be safe. They may be running low on resources, there could be approaching herds of walkers, or the Governor could be planning another attack.
An example of this impasse occurs in the season 2 finale; stranded on the road after being forced off the farm by a herd of walkers, Rick argues with the others over their next move:
Rick: We’ll find shelter somewhere there’s gotta be a place.
Glenn: Rick, look around, okay? There’s walkers everywhere. They’re migrating or something.
Rick: There’s gotta be a place not just where we hole up, but that we fortify, hunker down, pull ourselves together, build a life for each other. I know it’s out there. We just have to find it.
Maggie: Even if we do find a place and we think it’s safe, we can never be sure for how long. Look what happened with the farm. We fooled ourselves into thinking that that was safe…
Although we don’t live in a world fraught with walkers, we share one commonality with the experience of those in The Walking Dead—uncertainty. Although we might like to believe otherwise, we have no way to guarantee that things will work out, or that nothing bad will ever happen to us. We might want to make friends or have successful careers, but we also don’t want to risk the possibility of rejection or failure. Like the ominous post-apocalyptic world depicted on the show, we aren’t always sure what is waiting for us at the end of each road, which sometimes renders us stuck; perhaps choosing not to go anywhere at all in an effort to maintain safety.
On this subject, psychologist, Reid Wilson, Ph.D. (2010) writes,
… everyone wants to feel confident about certain outcomes. Most people who experience traumatic events—a near drowning, a panic that resembles a heart attack, blanking out in the middle of a conference presentation—initially react by seeking comfort, safety, and reassurance. [But for people struggling with anxiety,] their solution to the problem—avoiding and resisting and seeking comfort and certainty—perpetuates their problem. (p. 70 – 71)
Wilson’s notion illustrates that while seeking comfort and certainty can be adaptive and healthy, it can also become debilitating for some individuals when, in trying to ensure that a road guarantees success or safety, they become paralyzed by their ambivalence and fear of a negative outcome. In order to evade uncertainty, such people may avoid anything new or unfamiliar, or making any choices altogether, which can be greatly limiting. Perhaps this looks like isolating oneself at home despite suffering loneliness and boredom, or avoiding job applications despite accumulating debt. This avoidance and resistance not only contributes to feelings of depression, but also ultimately leaves us less prepared and more afraid about what’s out there.
For those of you who watch the series, this would be akin to if Rick and the others had never left the camping ground in season 1 because they feared they would not find anything else. If they had stayed, they may have avoided the various hazards they encountered in the later seasons, but they would likely have also continued to believe that everything is hopeless and the world is too dangerous to venture beyond the camp in search of something better (e.g., the abandoned prison).
So while people might naturally seek comfort and certainty when facing decisions—particularly in high-stress and high-stakes situations—we should also consider the potentially hindering effects of this approach. Instead, as Wilson suggests, “Anything that is resisted will persist; therefore, the best perspective is a paradoxical one: When facing a problem, one must go toward uncertainty and distress” (p. 71).
photo credit: www.hypable.com
Wilson, R. (2010). The Art of Persuasion in Anxiety Treatment. In M. Kerman, Clinical pearls of wisdom: 21 leading therapists offer their key insights (69-78). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Kong Psy.D., B. (2013). The Walking Dead and Uncertainty. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 22, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/psychology-culture/2013/10/the-walking-dead-and-uncertainty/