Withstanding the Heat of Unknowing

Withstanding the Heat of Unknowing

Uncertainty seems to be a defining quality of life these days everywhere I look, from my own circle to the international landscape, and even to the survival of life itself. The inescapable unknowing can feel like being heated in a crucible. Part of me wants to fight my way out, objecting that I was never prepared for this: for how often we receive the unknown instead of the expected; for how frequently I must witness related discomfort and suffering, or bear them myself.

And yet, another voice inside says, ‘Don’t you see? This is exactly what it’s all about: showing up day after day in the face of uncertainty, with active acceptance rather than avoidance or judgment, is the fire of transformation.’ My spiritual development turns out to be less of a singular, life-changing moment than a Sisyphian daily practice.

One morning as I sweated through my workout at the gym, I had the realization that the emotional challenge of daily uncertainty is not so different from the physical challenge of working out — that it is essentially training of another sort. I wondered what I might be training for and imagined one of those dramatic moments in which a small woman heroically steps into a car crash and impossibly lifts a vehicle from someone trapped there. Wouldn’t I be glad for my physical and emotional training then!

In reality, I am probably training so that I can be a better support for others and to enhance the skill of calm, productive dialogue that has never been needed more. I train as well to more gracefully bear the mantle of old age, and the process of death, one day.

And while it does feel like today’s world stretches our ability to withstand the heat of unknowing, uncertainty has always been with us. I recently opened Alan W. Watts’ sagacious book, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, in which he seemed to be addressing exactly the zeitgeist of our day…but the book was published in 1951. His insights are many, including: “To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know that you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared.” The pleasurable and the painful are all of a piece.

I remind myself that life is just as astonishing and lovable in this moment as it possibly could be in any age, under any circumstances — and that perhaps it is more impossibly dear when the fragility of all its delicate, uncontrollable interdependencies are lit up and starkly revealed. And I come to feel with some certainty that in the end, we are not here to fear and fret, or control the fire, which can be natural responses to the unknown. Rather, I believe, we are here to witness the beautiful and the abominable, to be strong in our strength and strong in our weakness, tempered by the heat, and to let our hearts love this unpredictable life wildly and beyond all reason.

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