Sitting With Uncertainty In A Culture of Knowing

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. – Erich Fromm

As a child, to escape a world that could be both chaotic and occasionally cruel, I would hide in my room, reach into my stack of books and fall into fairy tales, reading the same stories over and over again.  Yet no matter how beloved the story, nor how many times I had read it before, after the tension of the plot reached its peak, I would invariably skip to the end.

I needed reassurance that Hansel and Gretel would indeed survive the witch, that Jack would continue to slay the Giant, Sleeping Beauty would once again wake up and all Goblins, Trolls and Evil Doers would always meet their just deserts.

I needed confirmation, not so much of the permanence of the happy ending, but of some kind of resolution.

Only then could I go back and tolerate the middle ground… the gray area…. “the not knowing.”  That unique space where the trouble has already occurred but the way out still isn’t clear.

I found it deeply unsettling to sit with my heroes in what seemed to me our most frightening and least attractive state of being:  uncertainty.

And I still do.

And apparently I am not alone.

Whether related to a trauma, or loss, a life event – or simply transitioning from one phase of life to another – more and more people are talking about being in this place of “uncertainty”… of not knowing.  They speak of their anger, their impatience – and really their discomfort and shame – at finding themselves in a place of seeming inaction.

We know the facts of our story:  “This” (whatever “this” is) has happened.  And since we know the facts of our story – this thing that has happened – we want to take steps to move beyond it, to fix it, to solve it.  We feel we should “know what to do”.  We should have a plan.  We should be on the move.  Something has shifted, or changed, and in our “fix it and move on” society, we rush to fill the void – to sweep out uncertainty.

“A call to action” has become a cultural mantra and we equate it with strength of character… and success… and power… and perseverance.

But action for actions sake, action without consideration, is not truly powerful, it is simply reactive.  It is artifice and it can be self-sabotaging.

We have become a culture that is increasingly uncomfortable with complex, difficult emotions.  While we are all sophisticated enough to name them… “I’m confused”, “I’m depressed”, “I’m anxious”, “I’m sad.” – we have become less sophisticated about understanding those emotions… we have become less willing to be intimate with them – and we have become less able to appreciate the opportunity for true change that lies in sitting with discomfort.  Which means of course that we are more likely to repeat the actions that got us here to begin with, rushing to the next hookup, the next relationship, the next job, the next friend, the next pharmaceutical, the next emotion, the next “answer” – but never finding the resolution we so desperately want.

We have lost our appreciation for the process of journey.
We have lost our appreciation for the process of ripening.

We have lost our appreciation for the tension that exists between what came before and what comes next… a tension that will ultimately give birth to the meaningful forward direction we crave.

Our ancient myths are filled with examples of the hero’s journey being tied to the period before emergence…. a period of watchful waiting… a period of stillness, pregnant with possibility… a period of gathering, defined by every moment that came before it, joining in the now, inevitably unfolding into the future.

Examples are endless recently with clients and friends who have come to me struggling with uncertainty.

A man whose wife passed away suddenly and tragically two years ago feels a failure because he tried so hard to “get over it” but can’t.  From my perspective as a clinician, he was not suffering from a diagnosable depressive disorder, yet a few months after the death, his friends began pressuring him to get medication, to help him “move on,” to date, to be more positive, less of a drag.  “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

A 13 year-old boy I met recently had been placed in foster care off and on beginning at the age of 8.  Since that time he has been diagnosed with Depression, Bipolar II, OCD and now ADD, the prescriptions changing with each new diagnosis.  When I asked him how he felt about all these labels he said “I think I was just sad that I had to leave my Mom.”

This boy was grieving.  As he should have been.  It wasn’t the boy who was struggling with uncertainty, it was all the adults in his life who recognized the sad and angry emotions but could not tolerate them. The impulse may be noble – move people out of pain – but the actions are questionable.

“Oh good – he’s on Zoloft.  We can check him off the list.”

What he needed, what the widower needed, what we all need, is someone to sit with us in our uncertainty… in our anxiety… in our absolutely appropriate “not knowing” before committing to action.

But in our collective discomfort, in our familial discomfort, in our personal discomfort with grief, with anger, with unattractive emotions… in our rush to “get over it” – we medicate and move on.

So today when I think for myself, or hear from someone else, “I don’t know what to do…  and I’m scared, or frustrated or angry”, the first thing I say is – “Congratulations.”  Congratulations, and don’t be afraid to stay there for a minute, or an hour, or a day, or many days.  Not in complacency… let us be clear about that… not as a victim… but as a scholar, as a friend to yourself.  Stay there confident in the fact that by bearing witness to your uncertainty, by embracing this middle space, you will find a way out of it.  You will eventually take meaningful action.

Our fear of course is that stillness leads to paralysis.  That we will become narcissistic and self-indulgent… that we will become whiners or losers. And we believe that action, any action, is better than uncertainty.

But nature shows a different destiny.  We are born to self-actualize biologically and psychologically.  Movement is our birthright and our DNA.

We were not born to stagnate – we were born to unfold.  We were born designed for forward momentum.  It is only when we careen from circumstance to circumstance that we stay in chaos.  Before rushing into the next relationship, the next job, the next drink, the next antidepressant or antianxiety medication… before we rush into what we think is “the solution”… before we rush into the knowing… sit, for a while, in the space of uncertainty.  Sit in the space of “I don’t know.”

Our discomfort is less likely to stand if we attend to it.

Our discomfort is less likely to stand if we acknowledge it.

Our discomfort is less likely to stand if we embrace it.

In a world of quick answers “uncertainty” is a space of gathering forces… it is a space of action potential. It is every moment and every interaction that led you to where you are.  It is the here and now.  It is the gloaming… it is the twilight … it is you – becoming.

Honor it.