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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Before the Snow

“Fall colors are funny. They’re so bright and intense and beautiful. It’s like nature is trying to fill you up with color, to saturate you so you can stockpile it before winter turns everything muted and dreary.”
— Siobhan Vivian, “Same Difference”

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Before the snow, I headed out to walk along Minnehaha Creek. The weather reports had been unequivocal: “Winter (i.e. snow) is coming!” And even though I knew when I chose to come here that winter would be bigger living in the north, the reports surprisingly filled me with dread.

Lately, when I ‘ve needed air and movement, I have gravitated toward neighborhoods and city blocks where urban life fills me with its bustle and energy. New views of the skyline, new shops to gaze into, new places to order a large Americano and observe my fellow city dwellers. Or I have looped the lakes – spectacular in their poetic beauty, sailboats bobbing on waters silver or blue, glass-smooth or frothy, depending on the mercurial light and wind.

Somehow, I knew I needed a quieter landscape this time.

I had ridden the bike trail along Minnehaha twice, both times with Mike. First, in the high heat of August, on the home stretch of a fifty-mile circuit of the city. Then, its lush green shadows felt like an oasis. The second time, we rode on a cool night in mid-fall, with only our cheap (and not very illuminating) headlights to guide us. That time, the depth of its shadows filled me with terror and the short moonlit spans with wonder.  As I thought where I could go, the adjacent walking path which meanders alongside the bike trail, mostly between it and the creek, came to mind. Trees and shadows and hidden spots would do nicely.

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For most of my adult life, I had very little appreciation of nature – similar to the way I sometimes felt about humanity, I appreciated it in the abstract: individual people, and the actual outdoors, were not always my cup of tea. Now I find that being outdoors is the best way to clear and focus my mind, or, when necessary, to alter my mood. In this pause before the snow, I knew my thinking was jumbled and my emotions were all over the place. I just didn’t have clarity as to why. The moment I set my feet on the path, I felt I had come to the right place.

The afternoon was damp and gray, but the woods were glowing. I’ve always loved the special quality of yellow and gold in autumn woods and fields. On sunless days, these plants radiate light almost as if in the long days of summer they had stored the sun’s actual rays and now – just as we are beginning to keenly feel the sun’s loss to winter – they give it back to us. I walked along the paved path, pausing as I crossed the bridges to watch the creek flow over rocks and into still pools. Though I followed the markers for the walking trail, I came to end of the pavement.

As I stood, indecisively wondering if I should turn around or take the unpaved path that beckoned me forward, a woman and large shaggy dog walked up, nodded, and continued past me onto the unpaved trail. I stopped to take a picture with my phone, then took off after them, thinking I would catch up, but they had disappeared. The woods were beautiful, silent and still – and I was definitely alone.

Suddenly, I found this a little frightening. I was unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where the path was going, and I was in the woods alone. And in that moment I realized that the internal disquiet I had come here to parse out was just a new manifestation of familiar life issues: uncertainty and expectations. When I moved here, I thought I came without preconceived ideas of how things would go. I thought I was ready to live with and through the uncertainty of creating something new for my life. I stopped walking and stood quietly as the synapses in my brain fired. What I realized, listening to the soft sounds of the creek and the woods was this: I had un-articulated expectations, with an associated time frame, that weren’t being met.

Before the snow, I had expected to be employed. Perhaps not perfectly so, but enough so that the fear of utter failure and destitution would have been alleviated.

Before the snow, I had expected to be equipped to face the winter – appropriate attire, new snow tires, the ability to winterize my bike so I could keep riding. Without the employment expectation being met, the likelihood of meeting this expectation was diminished.

Before the snow, I had expected my new life to be enriched by new friends and the opportunity to take advantage of some of the non-free things this city has to offer (classes at the Center for the Book or The Literary Loft, for example).

But most importantly, I had apparently expected that, before the snow, I would have traversed the path through uncertainty and come out on the other side with a clarity of purpose and a more firm sense of my life here. Instead, I was lost – both figuratively and literally. Despite my best efforts. And the snow was upon me.

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Once I realized what had led to my disquiet, I found I could think more calmly about my physical location in the woods. I took several deep breaths and looked around. Bright yellow leaves were dropping like confetti from the branches of trees. They covered everything: the ground, fallen branches and boulders in a spectacular, mottled carpet.

Uncertainty and unexpected detours from the path sometimes take us to magical places almost in spite of ourselves. If I hadn’t felt panic at the impending storm, I wouldn’t have experienced exactly this configuration of light and color. Also, I may not have gained clarity of thinking to know why I was troubled. Most importantly, I might not have been able to put my fear in its proper perspective: uncertainty sucks but I’m moving through it, not standing still. And if I let go of expectations and remember to take one step forward at a time, I will find a path. It may not be easy, it may not lead anywhere I ever thought I’d go. But it will be MY path. And isn’t that what all this was about in the first place?

Postscript:

Mike and I had planned to meet for a late dinner that night at our favorite restaurant (we had a Living Social coupon that was about to expire). We sat at the bar, catching up on our days and sipping wine. I was warm, surrounded by candlelight and interesting people, anticipating a delicious meal. My seat was turned slightly toward Mike, which afforded me a view of the front wall – all windows – and the fat snow flakes falling outside. It was absolutely gorgeous, this first snowfall in my new home. And I felt not a smidge of panic.

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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