The Case for Uncertainty

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When Reverend Robert H. Schuller posed the now famous question: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”, I wonder if he had any thought of its ongoing impact – of how often it would be presented, posted (reposted), asked as a motivational tool. I get what he was going for, but the truth is, I’m kinda tired of this question.

I’m tired of it because I think it is the wrong question.

Let’s face it – for most of us, the truthful answer when asked “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail” would be, “What I did yesterday. What I am doing today. What I plan to do tomorrow.” We build our lives around daily routines that are composed of things we can’t fail at: eating, sleeping, working, laundry. On the micro/daily level we don’t fail at these. At the macro/lifelong level, we may question whether or to what degree we were successful at these things – but mostly we muddle through without labeling ourselves as failures. We feel secure in our “fail safe” routines, as if our lives are manageable, predictable.

Besides, we can all point out, in fact are hyper-aware of, the times we do or have failed. We deal with failure to the best of our ability and move on – what else can we do? There’s even a kind of trendy “failure is good” meme out there right now, encouraging people to take risks, reminding us of how many times Michael Jordan missed a basket or how many rejection letters J.K. Rowling got before someone agreed to publish the Harry Potter books. The message is that failure is a necessary risk if we hope to succeed at anything worthy in life. I don’t take issue or argue with this point.

However, last winter I read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she alters Rev. Schuller’s famous question. Brown suggests that we ask ourselves, instead, “What is worth doing, even if I risk failure?” This raises the stakes by introducing the concept of uncertainty. Not “I can’t fail” but “I might fail”. I would argue that the most important word here isn’t fail, though that’s the word that captures our attention and most of our immediate fear. The word to pay attention to here is might.

What is glossed over or skipped entirely in most pep talks for daring greatly is that uncomfortable period during which we must live with uncertainty. If we want to create real change in ourselves, our lives or the world, we will have to get comfortable with uncertainty. “Real change only comes from encountering what is unfamiliar, what is new and unknown”, say authors Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan. “We can copy ourselves over and over again, every day. Or we can step into the unknown.” (from Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life).

Stepping into the unknown is uncomfortable. Un-easy. Underappreciated. I remember a conversation with a senior colleague, a woman the same age as me, in which I was told, “You still dream of accomplishing something new and different with your life? I’m not sure I do.” When I actually resigned my job of nineteen years, with no detailed plan for what came next, that same colleague called me courageous. At the time, I felt courageous – because I felt certain. Certain that leaving was the right decision. And,  though I am less likely to apply the “courageous” appellation now, I continue to feel that certainty.

But certainty is old news, or at least isn’t my uppermost experience these days. For months now I have been living with and in uncertainty. Living contentedly with the daily unknown of “What’s next?” comes neither easily nor naturally to me. Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far, the tentative case I am building for the importance of uncertainty:

  • Living in uncertainty, for any length of time, requires the development of trust. Trust that there is a higher purpose or good to be unearthed in my life, and trust in my ability to recognize it when it begins to unfold.
  • Expertise is a hard shield of certainty that can be used to protect us from the openness required of beginnings. Stepping out of my role as expert, no longer having a “professional pigeon-hole” in which to dwell and shedding certainty about what I know opens my mind to new thoughts about the world and the role(s) I wish to play in it.
  • Lacking certainty about tomorrow puts attention more squarely on today. Living in the present moment takes practice, and I wasn’t ever very good at it.  Now, though, it is abundantly clear when I stray out of the present – anxiety and fear serve as barometers that immediately register my movement into past recriminations or future fears.
  • In a similar vein, living with daily ambiguity forces me to be vulnerable – something I, for one, have always avoided. In the present I feel my emotions (is it ok to say I have a love/hate relationship with feelings?). But I also have the time to examine them and tease out the jumbled threads to understand them, something I could never do when time was always in short supply.
  • Uncertainty allows for play. Trying new things on for size. Engaging in exploration that can’t happen when every step is already mapped out. It allows us to give up, for at least some portion of time, the need to succeed and instead to focus on process rather than results. Carla Needleman, in The Work of Craft, says: “…the desire to succeed is the progenitor of real failure and…this attitude is a far more pervasive force than we realize…The craving for results in objects, or in opinions, the need to name, the need to ‘know’, which means to end the discomfort of not knowing, is the seemingly innocuous backdrop against which all our activities take place. I don’t know how to feel about the pot (she’s talking ceramics here) because I don’t know how to feel about myself. The pot and I then make a closed circle in which no new knowledge can enter precisely because it hasn’t been asked for.”

Uncertainty may not be comfortable, but it is certainly fertile – if we allow it to be so. Recently, a friend shared a blog post by a woman who quit an unfulfilling job in a community she didn’t care for, moved to Colorado, and took the better part of a year finding the right situation for herself. She characterized herself, during that year, as being “uninteresting”. Her conclusion was that all she did was worry about money and finding a job. This focus prevented her from engaging in interesting activities.  I read her post as a cautionary tale – after all, our stories are similar. What I am beginning to grasp, if imperfectly, is that the gifts of uncertainty are sometimes difficult to mine, but in the end are worth any extra digging or effort on my part. Whether there is an eventual outcome which can be labelled as a success or as a failure, I want the hallmark of this time to be growth. The treasures being unearthed are knowledge, efficacy, compassion, gratitude – of and toward both myself and this amazing world I am part of.

I’ll close my case for uncertainty with one more elegant argument, which I stumbled across online earlier this week:

“If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation…There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”
           — Pete Athans, alpinist, from National Geographic, “Famous Failures”
 
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Ineffable Gratitude

This week we have been experiencing fog. I love fog, the way it takes the familiar and makes it strange and mysterious. The way it hides some things completely, yet reveals others in striking detail, highlighting these objects so that you see them with new eyes. Fog makes sound confusing, muffling it and disorienting the listener (on a walk Tuesday, a friend and I kept hearing a sharp report like gun fire, yet we looked in opposite directions for its source). I don’t have a word for the effect fog has on my psyche. It is enchanting, disorienting, occasionally even frightening. All at once.

The same words can be used to describe how I have experienced this year. 2012 has been odd for me, full of true peaks and desperately low valleys. Yet both have primarily been experienced on an interior level, visible only to me. It has been as if I have been walking in my own emotional landscape during a prolonged season of fog. There are occasional signposts, infrequent landmarks that suggest I have been here before, that I do in fact know this terrain. Still, it has felt strange.

I have often been reminded, this year, of Denise Levertov’s poem, “Zeroing In”. In it, we listen as two people discuss their interior landscapes.

“I am a landscape,” he said.
“a landscape and a person walking in that landscape.
There are daunting cliffs there,
And plains glad in their way
of brown monotony…

They suggest that there are places that we come upon, wandering our emotional landscapes, which without warning sink us in a quagmire or (worse) jump at us like a biting dog.

“I know,” she said. “When I set forth
to walk in myself, as it might be
on a fine afternoon, forgetting,
sooner or later I come to where sedge
and clumps of white flowers, rue perhaps,
mark the bogland, and I know
there are quagmires there that can pull you
down, and sink you in bubbling mud.”

They say we learn to leap away from unexpected contact with these places:

  “Yes, we learn that
It’s not terror, it’s pain we’re talking about:
those places in us…
…that are bruised forever”

(read the entire poem here)

Fog. Internal landscapes. Emotional pain. Not exactly the traditional fare of Thanksgiving posts. That said, this post is, indeed, about thanksgiving – mine. My gratitude for the unexpected breadth and depth of feelings experienced in this ethereally fogged-up landscape of my soul.

For many years of my life, I kept myself well-defended within a fortress of walls too thick to allow much feeling to permeate. Those of you who have been on this journey with me know that, by grace, those walls were sent crashing down a couple of years ago. In the aftermath, there was a rebound into joy, liveliness, excessive positive energy. It was lovely, but even as I experienced it I suspected it wasn’t sustainable. I had no idea what to expect on the next leg of the journey, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t remain at those heights.

It turns out that the current segment of my life’s path is the one that reminds me I am an ordinary human. I am being reacquainted with the reality of the human condition – we can use many means to escape into numbness, but numbness is not our natural state. Our natural state includes both joy and sorrow, hope and despair, love and loss, high and low. And not just these opposite endpoints, but the full spectrum of each.

Does it sound strange to say, “I am grateful for the lake of tears I have shed this year” or “Thanks for the epic roller coaster ride of emotions?” I suspect it does, and in some ways I surprise myself by saying it – because there have been days when I desperately missed my fortress of denial.

There is something ineffable here, though.

Ineffable:  1.  Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words: “ineffable beauty”.
2.  Too sacred to be uttered.

Wow, did you catch that? Too sacred to be uttered. The gift of our humanity, of full participation in this life we have been born into and made for. It isn’t so much that I am at a loss for words, as that the right words cannot be found, cannot be uttered. And so Thanksgiving finds me able only to offer humble thanks for the bounty of a difficult (and fulfilling, and happy, and challenging) full- spectrum year.

The Big Lonely

Avoidance and denial, my old friends. Back in the day, we hung together pretty tightly – in fact, we were what you might have called inseparable. I fed them all the emotions I preferred not to feel, and they shielded me from facing the harsher realities of my life. We made quite a team, living together inside the 352 pound flesh shell we built – soft, warm, protective.

Looking back, I know we weren’t exactly happy. But most days we felt like we could face whatever came our way. Or deflect it without much emotional impact. My friends would say, “I’m lonely,” or “I just wish I could meet someone”, and we would respond, “Why dwell on it? You can’t change it, and it only makes you unhappy.”

Man, have times changed. I kicked Avoidance out somewhere around 280 pounds, and Denial, while more tenacious, left shortly thereafter. For the most part, I haven’t missed them. My life has, in virtually every way, been so much lighter (brighter, less weighty, happier) without them. Oh, they visit briefly, from time to time, but its much easier to say goodbye each time. We just don’t have that much in common anymore. Breaking up was hard to do, but I don’t miss them as my BFFs.

Well, except in one way. These days, I’m feeling my feelings. Something that I never really had to do before if I chose not to – Avoidance and Denial (and the protective layer of 138 pounds I don’t carry now) took care of that for me. I’ve alluded to this in previous blog posts, mostly as one item in a list, or as something that I was acknowledging but didn’t want to get into. But here’s the honest truth: I have never felt this lonely.

How strange to say that at this point in my life. After all, I am – truly – happier than I have ever been. I have better, more fulfilling, relationships than I ever expected. My family and friends are with me, daily, enriching every experience and showering me with love and blessings. From the midst of this embarrassment of riches, I feel like an ungrateful or spoiled child to admit that I am still lonely. And yet, there it is.

Many times, I have refrained from talking about this, because I don’t want to appear pathetic, or upset my friends, or worst of all become a broken record on this point. Talking about my loneliness makes those who love me uncomfortable, because they can’t fix it. Instead, they try to cheer me up with stories about those who found a soulmate when they least expected, or by sharing their belief that one is waiting just around the bend for me, or by urging me to turn my eyes and heart to God.

Let me tell you this, so I can get it off my chest once and for all: I will be 50 years old this summer. I have never been part of a couple (not in the sense of two people who live together and make decisions together). Certainly I have given and received love, but never at the level of true intimacy which requires full participation and commitment from both people. And I have wanted this. Even when Avoidance and Denial helped me to hold the longing in check, and hide the depth of my loneliness from others (and, to a certain extent, from myself). So there is a reservoir of emotion which grew wide and deep all those years I had it dammed up. Without my old BFFs, I am swimming in it.  And for crying out loud, don’t bring up God right now, because the anger I’m not directing at myself is being quite forcefully directed at him. Right or wrong, that’s how I feel.

And there you have it. Once you stop denying that you have feelings, and start feeling your emotions, you feel them all. You don’t get to pick and choose. And the truth is, its really ok, even experiencing “The Big Lonely”, or deep anger. In one song, Lady Antebellum sings, “I guess I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.” I would amend that to “I guess I’d rather feel it all than feel nothing.”  And feeling my own anger or loneliness is a small price to pay for also feeling the joy that I sometimes experience with those I love – or for the contentment that mostly suffuses my days.

Joy and Contentment – way better BFFs than Avoidance and Denial, at any price.