An uncertain future? Learn from artists.

Back to ‘normal’? Let us view the empty canvas ahead of us as a wealth of opportunities.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven
5 min readApr 22, 2020

I experience a strange mix of excitement and serenity these Coronadays; the silence in the streets, the foregoing of so many plans and obligations and at the same time the ominous reports and a growing feeling of unrest inside.

It reminded me of a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan where I taught music lessons. A field filled with rocks that seemed to have sprouted white tents and where the dust of the desert and plastic litter drifted about. In front of those white tents there were people sitting, watching television. These television sets reported on the horrors of a war that was taking place only a few kilometres away. Everyone was aware of what was happening, but felt powerless to change the situation.

Inside the refugee camp, a strange feeling of being paralysed was present. These people were not only literally expelled from their homes and family, they had also lost their futures. They were lost in time.

That’s when we started making music. Music doesn’t rely on times, it’s neither in the past, nor in the future. By playing music and listening to each other we were able to regain a grasp of time. It took a while, but gradually we discovered how we were able to express our feelings by singing.

It felt like a liberation. I saw the necessity that lies within people to find something to hold onto when life has lost its core foundation. Instead of holding back feelings we were expressing doubt, uncertainty and sadness, which made children in the refugee camp realise how filled with emotions the others were too.

And now, in our well organised and prosperous side of the earth, we are facing the same lack of being able to hold on to something; will we be swept away with feelings of being paralysed, or do we find ways to share our ‘inside-life’ with others? Do we rush back to a state of ‘normalcy’ as soon as possible, or is it a realistic option to also dwell in this time in between? Do we need our statesmen to constantly exuberate trust and certainty or are we open to their doubts too? Are we capable to allow our ‘non-knowing’ to have a place too?

I could not shake off the experience in Jordan. The children were stuck in an unknown absence of future, unbeknownst to me. The time kept ticking — volatile, yet not being able to reveal a destination. By making music we were able to slow that flow down. We had been able to create a space to breathe.

We could have also opened a school, or started a fundraiser. Instead of that we brought something that felt like it lifted a burden, a weightlessness. We brought our concentration and contact, and yes, it was intangible, inedible — and yet there was a great scarcity of it.

Now I am stuck in time myself and I feel the need for a firm foundation to hold onto in between all these messages and worries. Plans and projects came to a grinding halt, incomes have vanished. I myself am in the camp. In my head the dust and plastic litter are whirling in a desert that once was my brain. How to navigate in poor visibility whilst being swept away by an intangible current? It is only now I notice how structured, certain and foreseeable my life had been. People had their places, opinions, each with their labels so we were able to sort them in to groups and categories. This all seems to have become liquid now.

Centuries long folklore, religious rituals and cultural traditions gave meaning to our lives. They were big, all-encompassing structures that had been eroded by the many generations before us. These structures had been able to give a place, a home, to our thoughts and feelings. But it had never been a one-way street. You were the one who spoke, sang along, participated and passed along these rituals.

Inexplicable things in live were given its place too. In modern times a pastor can no longer direct us what to believe. Music and dance has its place in theatre, and singing is now only done in a football stadium. Instead of telling stories around the fireplace, we huddle in front of the television at night. We are no longer capable of dealing with the mystery and intangibility of our existence.

In these times of great uncertainty we follow the live news that is streaming into our living rooms. The media refuses doubt; there is no room for ‘not being informed’. Specialists, experts and people from the government are doing the best to present us with something to hold onto. Yet they are unable to tell us what has real value in life. They do not present us with an image of what a bright future would look like.

Artists, musicians and storytellers know how to deal with the unknown. ‘Not-knowing’ is a known ground for them. How could we make use of their expertise in these trying times? How do we find the room to doubt and to share our feelings, feelings that can also be expressed by silence? And in the end, how do we answer the question that has now become most relevant; what is a good world?

Our society is investing billions to return back to what we perceive as ‘normalcy ‘. But should this be what we want? Do we want to fall back into our economically and socially eroded footsteps? Before we let our usual voices give their reflexive answers, we should purposefully pose this question AND listen to the answers of all; young, old, citydwellers, rural, every economic background and every corner of our society.

This current time asks for a capability to deal with uncertainty — Uncertainty Competence. I notice my entire being is very inexperienced with this… Except for the musician and composer in me. This part of me is able to work with the first beats of a timpani, a tremolo of strings. Let’s give space to the artist inside ourselves and explore the empty canvas ahead of us as a wealth of opportunities.