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Embracing uncertainty: What does it really mean?

Embracing uncertainty: What does it really mean?

An important idea that I’ve come across in various contexts is that of embracing uncertainty. I liked it so much that I ended each chapter of Rewriting the Rules with it, asking myself and the reader what it would look like if – instead of clinging to old rules or developing our own new ones – we embraced the fact that relationships are uncertain and that no one set of rules could ever cover them completely?

I was therefore troubled recently to hear somebody use the idea of embracing uncertainty in a way that was hurtful to their partner. I realised that I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing myself. We hear a frightened partner seeking reassurance and a sense of safety and, feeling limited and trapped by their demands, we point out that life is uncertain and use that as a way out of making any kind of commitment to them. ‘How can we know what’s coming down the road? You need to embrace uncertainty baby.’

Such an exchange can leave us with a comforting feeling that we are by far the more evolved, rational and philosophically sophisticated, person in the argument, as well as absolving us of any sense of responsibility and enabling us to avoid facing up to the pain that somebody we love is feeling. No wonder it is an attractive position.

The last few weeks I’ve been returning to my favourite source on uncertainty, Pema Chödrön, as well as thinking a lot about how it applies to my own life. I want to share some of my ideas about what embracing uncertainty means beyond this kind of basic understanding of life being uncertain (which, of course, it is).

If we subscribe to this more nuanced understanding of embracing uncertainty then we could see it as coming from a place of deep commitment rather than from an attempt to escape commitment. Also, instead of being about a liberation from pain and difficulty, embracing uncertainty becomes about facing up to these things in a way which is both hard and courageous. This is why Chödrön calls it a warrior path.

Going slowly

The first thing about embracing uncertainty is that it takes time. When faced with uncertainty in life we often find it incredibly painful and rush to resolve it as quickly as possible. In the example I gave before, of telling a partner to embrace uncertainty, we are not really embracing uncertainty ourselves. Rather we are rushing to resolve the situation by writing our partner off and denying what they are feeling. To embrace the uncertainty of such a tough situation of relationship conflict we would take the time to really listen: to both our partner and to our own panicky, trapped feelings which are driving our impulse for a quick resolution.

In times of profound uncertainty in life it is tempting to act quickly. We’re having a difficult time at work: quit. Our relationship is in difficulty: break-up. Somebody is out of line: reprimand them. Whether our action involves lashing out or running away, it is a quick response that gets us out of painful uncertainty because we either insist on the rightness of our way of seeing the situation, or escape the situation entirely.

Embracing uncertainty involves being prepared to sit with the situation in all its uncertainty for as long as it takes for us to be sure that we’ve seen it from all angles, and until we know that the response that we have come up with is that which is the most compassionate and ethical possible under the circumstances and for all involved (including ourselves and others).

During the time of uncertainty we need to refrain from acting however tempting it may be to do so. This may also involve asking others to give us the time that we need rather than giving in to their demands to come up with an answer. Thus it can also be quite a socially radical thing to do in a cultural context of quick fixes and immediate responses: being prepared to say ‘I don’t know what I think about this yet’ or ‘I’m not sure how best to respond, let me get back to you’.

Vitally though, embracing uncertainty is not about failing to act at all. Another misuse of embracing uncertainty would be to use it as an excuse for apathy or avoiding doing anything. Instead it is about a commitment to act in the most thoughtful and kind way possible having given ourselves enough time to look closely at the situation.

Leaning into pain

An idea which is frequently mentioned alongside embracing uncertainty is that of leaning into pain. When we take time to embrace uncertainty we are deliberately avoiding our usual instincts to avoid fear and suffering and, instead, determining to turn towards them, to lean into them, to really understand them.

This might sound fine in the abstract but we are actually talking about incredibly hard, messy, difficult work where we will be called upon to look directly at the things about ourselves that we feel most vulnerable and ashamed about. The situation wouldn’t be so uncertain and difficult if it wasn’t touching something deep and painful in us.

Therefore leaning into pain also involves knowing when we need to look at the situation and when we need a break from it to build up our strength . We simply cannot look at the situation constantly. If we do we risk getting so caught up in the tangle of different ways of understanding it that we can’t see it at all. We need to retreat, to look after ourselves, to treat ourselves kindly as somebody in a tough situation, as well as time – when we’re feeling stronger – to lean into the pain.

Leaning into pain involves taking a good hard look at what the situation means for us, what our habitual reactions are telling us to do (Fight! Prove them wrong! Run! Hide!), and why that might be the case. The partners in the example before might usefully ask themselves what they are bringing to bear on the situation. Have there been other times (in their past, in other relationships) when they’ve felt insecure (on the one hand) or trapped (on the other)? What vulnerabilities do they carry from such times? Are they convinced that, on some level, they are really unloveable? Do they believe that they are destined to hurt the ones they love? In what ways do we fear that we are ‘not really okay’ and how is this influencing the current situation?

Whilst leaning into pain can be incredibly hard, the clearer picture that we gain when we face these things that we are so used to running from can bring a massive sense of relief, once we’ve taken the time to really look at them. When we do then have conversations with those involved there is often a similar sense of relief that – however painful those conversations are – they are coming from a place of honesty where nothing is being hidden from view.

Getting off the hamster wheel

The real value – for us – of embracing uncertainty is that it offers us a chance to get off the hamster wheels which we all seem to create for ourselves. Perhaps we are all about gaining approval, or becoming a success, or avoiding danger, or a combination of these and other things.

The ways in which we respond to the stuff of life becomes driven by these motivations such that we find ourselves going round and round in the same patterns.  Perhaps we find ourselves taking on a new project every time we get to a much longed-for endpoint. Maybe we burn our bridges every time we get bored. We might realise that we always shy away from opportunities when they appear. Or we might recognise a pattern of pushing relationships to breaking point.

Whatever our (many) hamster wheels, embracing uncertainty gives us the possibility of stepping off temporarily – perhaps even permanently. Slowing down means that we can see the patterns that we’re embroiled in. Leaning into pain means that we can understand better why we do it: what is so fearful that we are avoiding it by running faster and faster, and still getting nowhere.

When we embrace uncertainty we can start to see our hamster wheels and the ways in which they are hurting both ourselves and others. As well as engaging with the current situation in a more thoughtful, compassionate, and ethical way, we have a real possibility of stepping off the hamster wheel and beginning to forge a different path.

How to embrace uncertainty

So how do we actually do this in practice? The answer to this question will be different for each of us. Some find meditation a good way to slow down and lean into pain, others prefer journal-writing or talking things through with a trusted friend or mentor.  It’s important to remember that balance of retreat and engagement: we need to build in time away from the situation to see it more clearly. I like to go for a walk in a wide open space where the big sky seems to relieve me from the pressure of the tangle, but retreating too will look different to everyone.

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It is certainly worth – in calmer times – thinking through what works for us. How will we notice when we have become embroiled in the tangle? And how will we ensure that we take time to embrace uncertainty and lean into the pain instead of reacting quickly to close it down according to our usual habits?


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