Letting Go of Certainty

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides.” — Tony Schwartz

On a bitterly cold morning this week, I saw a woman walking toward the large garden at my workplace. I couldn’t believe that a volunteer was actually planning to work in the garden in that cold, despite clearly being bundled in many warm layers. So I watched her and, sure enough, she went right up to the garden gate. As she was lifting the bar that holds the gate shut, a sudden blur of movement rushed past: a deer at full gallop ran behind the woman, not more than a foot or so behind her. A second deer, also at a full run, followed. My heart skipped a beat – they passed so close to the woman that, had she stepped backward while opening the gate at the same moment the deer ran by, they would have collided. Luckily, the deer ran so swiftly that they were out of sight by the time she swung the gate open.

My cry of warning died in my throat. It had all happened so fast I hadn’t even managed to shout. What struck me most powerfully in that moment was that the woman’s bearing and demeanor gave no sign that she had any idea what had just taken place. She had missed both the beauty and the danger of the running deer.

Later, when she came inside to warm up, I told the woman about the galloping deer. She was astounded. She said, “I didn’t hear anything, or even feel any vibrations! Must have been all these layers.” She was torn between disappointment and a kind of retroactive fear.

This incident with the deer seems an apt metaphor for a phenomenon many have been experiencing lately. In our increasingly polarized world, we move bundled-up against the cold world in the certainty of our opinions and beliefs. Certainty feels protective; it offers us a group identity among like-minded people; it gives us a sense that we’re standing strong and prepared against any swiftly moving forces that might seek to knock us down.

Our certainty also has a negative side, though. It prevents outside stimuli from reaching us. We don’t hear the approach of other ideas, other ways of knowing; we remain untouched by perspectives that might increase the keenness of our perceptions or the compassion in our hearts.

Certainty keeps us from feeling vulnerable. When we are certain, we feel protected from having our hearts broken by the world and events beyond our control. Parker Palmer suggests that, being human, our hearts will break regardless of the false layers of protection we attempt to wrap them in. However, he believes that the heart can break in two ways: one is into the hurtful shards of brokenness we typically think of, while the other way is that of the heart breaking open in order to take in new ways of experiencing and seeing the world. To illustrate, Palmer tells these stories:

“A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”  The same point is made by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” (from The Broken Open
Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap)

If we hang on to our certainty at all costs, whatever else we’re holding must remain near our hearts at best, unable to enter inside. Our hearts remain closed: unbroken, therefore, unopened.

“A bird in hand is a certainty. But a bird in the bush may sing.” — Bret Harte

 

 

 

 

 

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Lessons from The Valentine’s Day Box.

Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden
Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Remember when you were a kid and required to give valentines to everyone in your class, even kids you didn’t like? That was never particularly hard for me because I always felt sorry for kids I didn’t like. If I didn’t like them, no one did, right? They deserved my pity, obviously. Besides, the first person I remember seriously disliking was in sixth grade, the last year we handed out valentines in the classroom. I disliked her because she was mean to me and publicly named me a loser. But I survived placing a valentine in the decorated box on her desk just fine.

I also didn’t mind that the pile of valentines I brought home each year were given to me under duress. I was pretty sure that, left to consult their own feelings, most of my classmates would choose to bestow their valentines elsewhere. On the whole, I thought it was better to feel included – even if it was a sham.

All these years later, I am thinking about the lessons inherent in those classroom valentines. I know there are people who likely disagree with such practices, thinking children shouldn’t be taught to expect a world in which everything is fair and everyone gets the same number of valentines as everyone else: all grownups know this to be patently untrue. Better that we don’t set children up for later disillusionment.

However, that perspective only takes into account what it means to be on the receiving end. The greater lessons reside within the giving part of the transaction. And they are lessons, I believe, it would be good for us to regularly revisit as adults.

1. Kindness, generosity, empathy, and compassion are easy to bestow upon people we already love. Stretching ourselves to share these qualities beyond our own small circle is much harder – yet it is what best allows us to express these qualities. It is also what allows us to expand our capacity to bring them to a wider world so very much in need of them. It is important for each of us to pay attention to the things that activate these impulses in our hearts: things we see in our neighborhoods, hear on the news, observe in the lives around us. Then take some action, big or small . In The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope writes, “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.” The point is to act, to respond from your generosity or compassion – not to wait until you figure out an action that is guaranteed to change the world. That you bring light into someone else’s darkness is enough.

2. Be willing to speak of love, and open your heart to it, even when the situation involves people you don’t care for or don’t really know. Even, as in the case of my 6th grade nemesis, when the situation involves anger and hurt.

Just over a week ago, a young bicyclist named Marcus Nalls was struck and killed by a drunk driver down the street from my house. (The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide). Marcus had just moved to Minneapolis in January, transferring from Atlanta for his job. Very few people in this city knew him. But on Saturday, the cycling community held a memorial ride for him. Over 200 cyclists rode most of the route that Marcus would have ridden heading home from work the night he was killed. We rode in silence on the city streets. We dismounted and walked our bikes past the ghost bike memorial that has been placed at the site of his death. His coworkers wept unabashedly as we filed past, as did many of us. Were we angry? Absolutely. But I believe this memorial ride touched us all so deeply because we agreed to make it about solidarity and community, not about anger. We embraced Marcus as part of us, even though we hadn’t had the chance to know him – and we allowed ourselves to publicly mourn the lost opportunity of that. In the months to come, as the man who killed Marcus is brought to trial, my hope is that we will continue to place community and love at the center of our response, working toward increased safety for all.

3. Just as we were required to give everyone a valentine, regardless of our feelings about them, we must learn to feel gratitude for what life brings us – regardless. You might ask why – as I often do – should we be grateful for the bad or crappy or even the boring and mundane? The easy answer is that to be alive is to experience these things as well as the good, happy, peak moments. Bottom line: being alive is better than the alternative.

There is a certain complexity concealed within that “bottom line”, however. Life is a process of becoming, of refining our gifts and discovering meaning and purpose. A process of becoming the person we were created to be. We know the milestone markers for development in babies, toddlers, children. But in adults, these milestones are unique to the individual because they take place on an interior emotional and psychological level. When we reject or disown aspects of our experience, we disown pieces of the self we are meant to be. Am I happy, for example, to be a 52 year old woman who has never once had a “significant other” on Valentine’s Day? Not really. Is that fact an intrinsic part of the woman I have become? Absolutely. And I refuse to reject that part of myself, even though embracing it means embracing the sadness and loneliness I sometimes feel because of it. Embracing that part of me activates my compassion in many ways – both toward myself and toward others. For that, I am truly, deeply, grateful.

It has been a lot of years since I last decorated a box for my classmates to stuff with their valentines. Valentines Days have come and gone, each one different, each one finding me different. This year I have a plan – get up and live my life keeping in mind the lessons above. And one more lesson, a simple, eloquent one from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life. 
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM
Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM