Some bumper stickers are priceless. My personal favorite: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” I am not alone: this expression resonates in at least 219,000 places in cyberspace. If you can’t change the reality of an unpredictable future, at least get your priorities right.
Most of us endure uncertainty when we would much rather have clear answers. Will this relationship last? Will the economy recover in time? Will the medication work? Will we avert a hurricane this year? What about climate change? Will the circle be unbroken? We stand in need of comfort and reassurance at times of global uneasiness like this one. There is a lot of shared public anxiety, as we seek solutions to vexing social problems that can’t be deferred. Finding a way to stay emotionally afloat, while waiting for clarity, is challenge enough. Finding peace with uncertainty is an art form.
Uncertainty is sometimes fun, or nobody would buy lottery tickets, or fool with the stock market. At the local Saturday morning open air arts market, one of the craftspeople offers a basketful of small mystery items wrapped in colorful paper, your choice for $5./ When the world of possible outcomes is benign, or the impact is small, we can tolerate not knowing. But when there are toxic possibilities, and the outcome may be life changing, we need to call upon deeper resources to help us tolerate uncertainty.
My clients teach me many things. Some of them are living with the HIV virus. They live with an uncertain future, a stigmatizing disease that as yet has no cure. Yet those who have made a healthy adjustment to this reality are fond of telling others that they have HIV; it does not have them. While they hope for a normal lifespan, in this era of advanced medications, it is still far from certain. They cannot forget that they are mortal, as the rest of us do, and for some, it intensifies the joy of small moments. Breakfast with the cat. A laugh with a friend. A good day at work. A possible lesson: find reasons for everyday gratitude where you can.
Some clients are struggling to repair a broken relationship. Often they are hurt and wary; a storybook happy outcome seems pretty unrealistic. Some take considerable risks to give their strained relationship with an old lover or an absent dad or sister another chance. It is of course not possible to will another person to want to be with you, or to be willing to make amends, or to change anything; but people do bravely ask for an opportunity to get things right, uncertain of the response. A possible lesson: be open to being surprised, without depending on it.
It would be nice to think that the seriousness of threats to our environment would dwarf partisan political agendas in Congress, and that’s far from clear right now. But there have been unexpected alliances here and there, between conservative Christian pastors who preach about stewardship of the earth, and progressive advocates for a green economy, that violate the rigid social classifications in which we have become trapped. A possible lesson: we must all learn to tolerate ambiguity.
In the meantime, we can face the troubling unknowns that swirl around us with a kind of weathered hopefulness. By tolerating the unease of not knowing, and waiting with reasonable grace for clarity to emerge, unforeseen possibilities may just have a chance.