Life Musings

The gift of uncertainty


“If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you’d be doomed. You’d be ruined as God. You’d be a stone. You’d never eat or drink or laugh or get out of bed in the morning. You’d never love anyone, ever again. You’d never dare to.” -Margaret Atwood

I like to know things. I’m analytical. Life has taught me to predict and postulate. Possible outcomes are always ticking around my head like mathematical equations, demanding resolution and probable solutions.  

If this year of travel has taught me anything, it’s that not knowing is a gift. If I had known this year would include things like malaria, losing my passport (twice), being groped and constantly harassed, or winding up homeless, I might not have agreed to the adventure. If I had known I would be homesick and heartsick, that I would witness children being beaten or that I would dress infected wounds with flies swarming around, I might’ve just stayed home.

But then I would have missed celebrating my 26th birthday in Paris. I would’ve missed hiking the Appalachian trail with my Dad. I would’ve missed picnics in fields of wildflowers and bonfires on the beach. I would’ve missed holding dirt covered and snotty children in my arms. I would’ve missed feeling more alive, more joy, more contentment than I could imagine.
Paris, France 2013

Yet, I still find myself peering into the future, wondering what comes next. I wonder about future lovers and where my next paycheck will come from. I wonder when I will see my family and where I will build my next home. I wonder how I will feel after the next goodbye, how I will spend my days without grubby hands holding mine, without the pearly shy smiles of my students.
Ghana, Africa 2013

Uncertainty is a gift. It brings us back to the present, where we belong. It reassures us that whatever comes next, we will have all of the faculties, all of the capabilities, all of the resources we need to handle it. Not more, not less. 

Anxiety and worry assume the opposite. If we prepare, if we predict, if we solve the unknown ahead of time, we will be safe. But only if we fill the storehouse, if we buy the gas mask, if we purchase long-term disability insurance and earn a paycheck big enough to pay for all of our security.  

Meanwhile, we’re occupied, some might say obsessed, with the future.

“But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead.” -Alan Watts

My greatest anxieties have come during moments when I had the greatest security. When I had the most control over my life, I felt like I needed even more. Insomnia kept my heart racing in the dead of night, making 5 and 10 year plans for my life, trying to settle all of the odds and ends, desperately wanting it to make sense. It didn’t.
Chicago, Illinois 2011

I still default to control, I still resort to making plans for my future. Uncertainty is terrifying. It’s also the only way I’ve decided I can live. Because, really, we don’t know shit anyway.

Doesn’t that feel good? To admit it, to release it, to start living as if we were free to fail. To mess up. To get up and try again. To hurt. To feel. To lose. To empty ourselves out for someone else and then fill back up again. 

Security is something I’ve determined I can do without. If it means building walls of safety around my heart, around my life, no thank you. If it means stress and worry over the loose ends, over the fractions of a whole, the mysterious remainders that keep going, I don’t need it. ‘What if’ is a rabbit hole and I know what the inside looks like. It’s dark and musty with no escape. 

Here are some things I do know: guess what living in and for the present moment gives you? Time. Time to notice the way the light falls across the horizon when the sun is setting. Time to talk and to laugh without the distraction of a computer screen or television. Time to eat something that doesn’t come in a wrapper. Time to be whole instead of fragments of your past and future self. Time to be present, time to have presence.

It’s true that my life is filled with more uncertainty than ever. But while the details have yet to arrange themselves into decipherable patterns, when I examine what I’m left with, it’s enough. When I strip away concerns about stability and security, when I let go of what I should do or should want, here is what I’m left with:

I want to help people. I want to live a life of service and significance (here’s to you, NPU for ingraining this motto into my young mind!) 

I want to travel. I want to never tire of exploring the beauty, the struggle, the grit, the humanity, the vastness of it all. I want to get the dirt of life underneath my fingernails, I want to tingle with joy at the overwhelming awesomeness of it all.
Tulum, Mexico 2013

I want to write. I have to write. I’ve never been able to contain the words from spilling onto a page, a sticky note, the back of a receipt, or a crumpled paper towel. I think this will always be an important aspect of my life, whatever form it manifests.

I want to live in community. People are important. They are messy, fallible, broken, and worth every ounce of love I can give. I don’t want to isolate myself from the challenge of sharing life with others, even when solitude seems the safer bet.

Our volunteer family! Ghana, Africa 2014

These things may not lead me to the most comfortable or secure life. I may end up poor (heck, I’m already there), and I might lose my reputation. I may never own a house or a car, not to mention health insurance. I might have to trade 5 year plans for the here and now. Strangely, I’m learning to be okay with that. It’s all I really have anyway.

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