Letting Go of Uncertainty
For the second time in six years, my heart had gone on the fritz. This time was different in that the medical reason for the malfunction wasn’t immediately clear. Several possibilities existed, so my cardiologist laid out a series of diagnostic tests and medication trials.
What played with my head was that this science experiment would take a month. A month! That’s a long time to live with the uncertainty of not knowing.
Our brains perceive uncertainty as a threat. We prefer the comfort of certainty, so we go to great lengths to block out the indefinite, the unknown, or ambiguous. We develop fixed habits, adopt strong views, and create absolute truths. We meticulously define right and wrong, invent unambiguous rules, and prize consistency.
“We talk to ourselves incessantly about our world. In fact, we maintain our world with our internal talk. And whenever we finish talking to ourselves about ourselves and our world, the world is always as it should be. We renew it, we rekindle it with life, we uphold it with our internal talk. Not only that, but we also choose our paths as we talk to ourselves. Thus, we repeat the same choices over and over until the day we die. A warrior is aware of this and strives to stop his internal talk.” ~Carlos Castaneda, anthropologist and writer
In creating this bubble of certainty, we build a comfort zone, a status quo, in which we often become self-righteous and stuck. The Covid-19 pandemic had forced me, as well as many (all?) of us, outside the comfort zone. For me, both the pandemic and a medical condition were kicking me in the pants, urging me to let go of certainty and embrace the tension of uncertainty.
“The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.” ~Yoshida Kenko, 14th century Buddhist monk
For lots years, I’d encouraged leaders to think both/and. To not pick sides between competing beliefs, like results and relationships or logic and emotion. To not always favor what might have worked well in the past.
Now I was in a life situation that demanded that I balance—regardless of how discomforting it was—both the known and the unknown, along with identifying what I could control and what I couldn’t. No amount of fretting or insisting was going to change the month-long diagnosis timeline. I had to learn to deal with it.
“Learning occurs when an anomaly arises, a piece of information does not fit our existing way of knowing. Anomalies are connections in reverse, connections learners don’t initially want to make. Learning is making the anomaly part of the pattern.” ~Andy Manning, Curriculum As Conversation
In truth, life, love, and leadership are full of competing paradoxes (or polarities or dualities as some refer to them) that point to two equally correct ways of knowing, two ways of doing, that can only be managed with cognitive flexibility. That’s our ability to think about multiple concepts at the same time, envisioning both what is and what might be as we accommodate both poles—no matter how much they appear to be in conflict with each other. You know, like accepting the known (my heart was on the fritz) as well as the unknown (why the fritz is happening).
“Polarities to manage are sets of opposites that can’t function well independently. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a ‘solution’ and neglect the other. The objective of the polarity management perspective is to get the best of both opposites while avoiding the limits of each.” ~Barry Johnson, Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems
I longed to reduce the uneasiness of being an experiment. I wanted to know, now, right now, was what ailing me. I’m not alone in clinging to the certainty of knowing because it reduces discomfort, however, I needed to accept that it’s discomfort that would allow me to grow. To push back on arbitrary limits. To be more open and patient.
“Only an uncertain mind can learn.” ~Walter H. MacGinitie, The Power of Uncertainty
I told myself to:
- Let go of expectations.
- Be curious.
- Consider possibilities.
- Look beyond limits.
- Expand what I paid attention to.
- Give myself grace.
- See with beginner’s eyes.
Peace comes with letting go of wishing to know, of hoping to get back to normal, and, most importantly, with fully embracing the tension that comes with valuing the growth and open-mindedness that come with uncertainty.
“The fears we cannot climb become our walls.” ~Noah benShea, poet philosopher