THE MAGIC OF UNCERTAINTY

Nobody’s asking, but if they were, there are a few things that I would put together for a survival kit.  Let’s just assume that the basic necessities like food and water and first-aid are all taken care of.  Beyond that, what do you need to survive?  Maybe a better question is, what do you need to thrive?

You are setting out on a long journey.  You have some ideas of the destination, or more accurately, you have some ideas of what you’d like the destination to be.  You will be traveling for some of the time, well most of the time, alone.  Occasionally you will have one or more traveling companions; they are not guides — just companions, don’t make them more than they can be.  The terrain will be highly varied throughout your journey.  There’s no sense in packing snowshoes instead of sandals or shorts as opposed to pants, just assume you’re going to hit it all and the only way to prepare is to deal with it as it comes.

In fact, you can’t really prepare for this journey at all.  It’s just not possible, I’m afraid.  And honestly, the experience of the journey, overall, will be diminished if you do.  Like any other good epic, the things that you need for this journey can only be obtained on the journey.

But you can bring some things with you.  Think of them as “the things before the things;” in other words these are the things you can bring with you that will help you obtain the things you need to thrive on this journey.  That’s what I’d put in my kit, the things before the things.

Number one thing before the thing?  The phrase, “I don’t know.”  Put that in your pocket and don’t let it fall out.  You’re going to need it.

 

A long, long time ago I was dating someone who I was head-over-heels in love with.  Our relationship was in no way perfect, but I was happy with her and could see us getting married and I even started planning when to ask her.  One day we were in the middle of a conversation when she declared, “I can’t be with you anymore.  We need to break up.”

Of course I asked her why.  She refused to answer me, I asked again and again and I begged to be told why and eventually I yelled for her to tell me why and it didn’t matter.  For hours we fought, her to be heard and me to be told why.  And again the next day.  And for several weeks after.  Until our mutual frustration and anger and despair turned us away from each other completely.

For months afterward I would find myself alone in my house, weeping so hard that I would choke, wandering aimlessly from room to room, constantly searching inside myself and outside for the reason why she had left me.  I tortured myself with this question.  After a while I just started making up answers, most of which had to do with how I wasn’t good enough.

One day I was needling this old wound again and my mind turned from what I didn’t know to what I did.  I started asking myself a series of questions:

Where are you?  In my room.

Where is that?  In San Francisco.

And where is that?  It’s in California.

Which is where?  In the US.

Where is the US?  It’s on Earth.

Where is that?  It’s in the solar system.

Where is that?  In the Milky Way Galaxy.

And where is that?  In the universe.

…and where…is….that?

….I don’t know.

And in the most gentle and kind way this voice, my voice, that had been asking me these questions, told me this:  Some things you just don’t get to know, kid.

This was my first experience with embracing uncertainty.  I had felt uncertainty before and I am well acquainted with its dazzling sister, wonder.  Before this my experience of uncertainty was always coupled with fear.  But this time I didn’t feel fear, I felt comfort.

When I embraced the uncertainty, instead of fighting with it or arguing against it or trying to pry it open and understand it, I felt an amazing release.  Some things you just don’t get to know.  Not, some things you have to work really hard to know or some things you have to torture yourself until you’re good enough to know.  This was a wholly different perspective.

This was acceptance of not-knowing and something more.  It was knowing of not-knowing.   That was where my tremendous sense of release and relief came from, knowing that I didn’t know.  I was so deeply embedded in this uncertainty that I did in fact understand it.  I understood, on a deep, deep level that can only be called knowing, that I didn’t now and probably never would know.

In all this bright and crowded universe of experience, the amount which you can know for 100% certain is so small that it can build itself a sprawling mansion on the head of a pin and never see a neighbor.  This is terrifying.  Sort of.  It can also be fantastic.

Not-knowing can be terrifying.  But thinking that you know is really scary, because it’s dangerous.  Falling into line with rules and regulations based on what is supposed to be true will lead us astray from our own hearts more often than not.  Knowing you don’t know allows you to question and question again so that you can answer from your deepest truth, and those answers are always the right ones for you.

Rattling around in an old rusty tin at the bottom of your satchel are the things I would put together for your journey.  “I don’t know” is number one and bound to it with an ancient rubber band is a friendly curiosity.  Embracing uncertainty is the beginning of true knowing, and the easiest way to get there is by truly embracing.  This is beyond acceptance or allowance.  This is a big bear hug and a welcome home slap on the back.

When we practice embracing and engaging with our uncertainty through friendly curiosity we can start to truly experience it.  We can ask it questions.  We can get to know it, not as a monster under the bed, but as a traveling companion.

One of my favorite exclamations has become, “I don’t know!”  When I can say this with total honesty I feel the crushing chains of certainty, of needing to look like I have it all figured out, crumble around me.  I feel absolutely free when I embrace my uncertainty, when I engage with it as a friend, when I explore it as an adventure.  This changes my reality from a struggle to an experience, from surviving to thriving.

Elias Gross