In the Wisdom of Uncertainty

Over Christmas break, my parents and brother came to visit me out here in San Francisco. I planned the entire trip, which basically meant that we were hurrying from one activity to another, every minute of every day. This was a perfectly exciting plan to me (my parents and brother might beg to differ…), except on the day after Christmas, when I got an e-mail from IKEA informing me that a coffee table I had ordered for my room had just been delivered (and abandoned) on my apartment doorstep.

Immediately, the worst-possible scenario that it had been stolen by some cold-hearted passerby sprang into my head. I mentally prepared myself for that possibility, though I hoped it wouldn’t be the case. We only got to my apartment at 8 pm, and of course the coffee table was no where in sight. It wasn’t inside anywhere either. I decided to suspend any judgment of the situation–who knew what had happened? Was it possible that someone stole it while it was outside, like I had feared? Yes. But it was also possible that someone had picked it up for me and put it in an unknown location, or that the e-mail was inaccurate, and it actually hadn’t arrived that day. I wanted to take the next steps with the understanding that I didn’t know, but my parents (who are so loving and wonderfully supportive, but also human, with their own faults) had jumped to the same conclusion: they both believed someone had stolen it off the steps.

It’s clear that I had a different view on the situation than my parents did, and that I was less certain than they were about what actually happened. In the end, my uncertainty saved me, because I was able to calmly navigate the GRUELING process of getting on the phone with IKEA without letting the whole incident take me away from being present and enjoying time with my family. The coffee table turned up shortly after, having been picked up by an upstairs neighbor who was safeguarding it for me. In the end, recognizing that I did not know what happened helped me take the necessary steps to getting the coffee table back while also maintaining a positive internal state throughout.

People are always chasing security and certainty in life; whether it be certainty in regards to why positive or negative things happen in life, to certainty about how justice works (or does not work) in this world, to knowing where you’re going to be next year, to financial security. I know what that’s like–I’ve been influenced by the stereotypical Asian American values growing up. But as I’ve gotten older, and as my goals and priorities have changed over time, I’ve learned the value and the immense creative potential of uncertainty–of not knowing why something happened, or what will happen, next.

I’ll divide my concept of certainty into two separate categories: 1) our beliefs about the world and 2) future plans. In both scenarios, uncertainty can be liberating; in the first, it’s because we never actually know why someone made a rude comment about us, or why we didn’t get that job or that apartment. Reminding yourself that you can only speculate about these things, and recognizing that the repeated narratives we use to explain disappointments to ourselves are just narratives, liberates us from the dark places that we sometimes enter into. Uncertainty can be liberating with regards to future plans, too, because with an open mind comes an alertness to new and exciting opportunities that can present themselves to us at any moment.

Dr. Deepak Chopra once again articulates this perfectly in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success in the chapter on the Law of Detachment (Youtube, 54:15-1:04:35):

True wealth consciousness is the ability to have anything you want, any time you want, and with least effort. To be grounded in this experience, you have to be grounded in the wisdom of uncertainty. In this uncertainty, you will find freedom to create anything you want. Security and certainty are a result of rigid attachment to the known…And what’s the known? The known is our past. It’s just the prison of past conditioning. There’s no evolution in that. Absolutely no evolution at all.

For example, if I had clung to the security of knowing where I was going to be come September last year, I would have ended up in a gray cubicle in a grayer office at the State Department of Health in NYC. It would have been easy to cling to the known and the security of having a job post-graduation, instead of accepting that my summer in San Francisco was making me rethink my priorities and career goals. Having had no real commitment binding me to the job in NYC, and having been told, after accepting the job, that my position was basically that of a glorified secretary instead of real public health-related work, I quit in July and decided to look for a job in the Bay after a month at home. I moved in with a college friend from Oakland, and we reveled in the excitement (and anxiety) of our unemployment together. With an open, alert, and calm mind, I found my current job within five days of moving back to the Bay, and now I’m teaching and living in San Francisco, making new friends, volunteering, dating, swing dancing, speaking Spanish, pretentiously drinking high-class beer and coffee, writing, meditating, and eating food from every corner of the world. I had absolutely no way of predicting that this would be my life a year ago, and therein lies the beauty of uncertainty. I am proud to say that I have lived Deepak’s words, that “You don’t need to have any idea of what you’ll be doing next week or next year, because if you have a very clear idea of what’s going to happen, and you get rigidly attached to it, then you shut out a whole range of possibilities.”

Don’t confuse this with letting go of intention. You should still set short and long-term goals and work towards them, but keep an open mind throughout, and allow yourself to recognize and act upon any desires to change direction during that process.

The second kind of certainty that humans are prone to is much more subtle, because it has to do with our internal narratives and explanations of events, and most of the time we don’t even stop to think about how rigid our stories become. My parents, for example, didn’t even realize that aspects of their outlook on life (that it’s unfair, that people are more often cruel than they are benevolent) were far too certain, and that these ideas were entirely informing their perspective on the coffee table situation (which was inevitably inciting some negative emotions for both of them).

Lesley Hazleton has an incredible TED talk on this type of certainty and how it’s particularly deadly in a religious context, leading to bigotry, prejudice, intolerance, hate crimes, and fundamentalism. Religion, in my opinion, evolved as a way for humans to explain the unknown, which is fine, except that there’s far too much certainty in these explanations. Hazleton goes into a really important argument about how Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, is founded on the absolute certainty fundamentalists have about the night Mohammad received a message from “God”, but you should just watch the talk to get all of that. For the purpose of this post, I’ll just leave you with this specific part of her speech:

Doubt is the heart of the matter. Abolish all doubt, and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction. You’re certain that you possess “the truth”, inevitably offered with an applied uppercase “T”, and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so, very right. In short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.

Then she says,

Real faith has no easy answers. It’s difficult and stubborn. It involves an ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling with issues and ideas. It goes hand in hand with doubt, in never-ending conversation with it, and sometimes, in conscious defiance of it.

Faith, in its purest form, is just the belief in a story that we base our values and our actions on. I could have faith in a divine power beyond my human perception, or I could have faith that people are innately benevolent and will generally take care of me and others. Either way, it’s important to choose a story that helps us be our best selves and benefits those around us. I may never know, for certain, the answers to many of my questions, or where I’m going to be next year. But I want to approach everything in my life with the knowledge that I don’t know. I can always have an idea of why something happened, or a plan for the future, or a belief in a divine power, but in the end, I don’t actually know, and that’s liberating.

I’d rather be aware of what I don’t know is true, than be doggedly certain of what may be false.

For more reading on this, check out Dr. Kelly Flanagan’s awesome post here.

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