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Making peace with not knowing

Untitled by Lina Scheynius
Untitled, originally uploaded by Lina Scheynius

(this post was previously published on Roots of She, where I am guest-blogging as part of the Winter Tribe)

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I want answers. Answers that make sense to me, and ones I can use as a starting point for action. I want clarity, closure and the peace of knowing.

Sometimes the ache of wanting those answers brings me to my knees.

And I’ve learned I am learning that boldly demanding answers doesn’t produce them, not if they’re not yet available. I see that my choice (as Byron Katie would put it) is to argue with reality, and lose, or be with it, and find peace.

I’m making peace with living in the now-familiar land of not knowing.

Have you been here too? It’s not so hospitable, unless you can do what it takes to make yourself at home. It doesn’t have a guidebook. It’s not a place many choose as a travel destination; the roads leading here are rough and sometimes treacherous, and the weather here is mainly cold and grey. But here we are. And so it is.

Welcome. It’s nice to see you.

I have been living a set of open questions for a good long while now; big weighty questions like “I know I want to move our family, but where to?” and “Will my business be viable?” and “What do I do next?”

These questions could suck me in and take me away.

If I approach them with my analytical, rational mind I come up with formulas and schemes, bending the variables into complex equations. If this, then this. These numbers mean this result. Here’s the ROI for taking this path.

I can’t put my faith behind answers that come out of this type of reasoning. They just feel untrustworthy; they aren’t rooted in who I am. Much as I’m a realist, I am led by my heart and fed by my dreams. That’s where I place my faith.

But here’s the problem : when I lean into the questions from a heart-space, I come up blank. There are glimmers of possibility, but not a clear directive. There’s room within which to ponder, and an invitation to poke around looking for clues, but I’m not getting any “hell, no!”’s or “hell, yes!” ‘es.

So then what? What to do when answers are elusive?

Name it. All of it.

I settle in and make myself as comfortable as I can with not knowing. I name what is present: fear, desire for clarity, discomfort with the unsettledness of the situations as they are. I acknowledge these feelings for showing up, and don’t try to make them go away.

I also name what I DO know. I know that I’m safe. I know my kids are safe. I know I have gifts, and that these gifts are what I’m here to share with the world, and what will eventually enable me to find my way. I am incredibly blessed with an extensive system of support. My allies are ready to be called on.

Simply acknowledging that I’m in this place is an enormous relief. It takes me from a general sense of anxiety to the deeply felt sense that I am held – and beyond that that this entire chapter is held – in a container of love and care.

Work it.

Those yucky feelings I mentioned above? There’s something worth mining in them, some information that can be used to move through this phase. Is my fear tied to something I can work on now? Is my discomfort pointing me toward practices I can call on for extra support today, like meditation or yoga? Can I find clarity in degrees, rather than clarity on the whole overall picture?

I give my mind something useful to do, which stops me from future-tripping and (my favorite word right now) catastrophizing. If I’m engaged in activities like looking for real estate or learning a new facilitation technique, I stay with the present and add to what’s already here. I don’t spin out into what-if’s or paralysis.

Feel it.

And then I simply give myself over to feeling my feelings. I AM afraid of what might be next. Yes. I DO squirm when things are fuzzy and unclear. I HURT and that’s that. I’m SORRY that I am not treating myself with the level of care that would really serve me right now.

Through all this, I lead with mercy. Mercy for my pain, for my humanness, for my situation. Mercy for my struggle to do it right, even feeling my emotions.

Here’s where I’m most careful about tending to myself in a loving way. I tread a thin line between feeling and wallowing – being with the feelings is healthy and healing, while staying with the feelings too long and without awareness can be harmful. I’m vigilant about this; past experience has shown me how important it is to catch when one turns into the other.

Call off the search.

The gift I have most treasured these past few months has been the one of allowing this to be a rough patch, and not pretending otherwise. At some point I called “Uncle!” and drew myself in, gathered myself close and drew the boundaries around what would be on the inside and the outside of my circle. I declared a time of rest for myself; a period of fallow that looks like hibernation to the outside world, but is also like incubation for me. Ideas are slowly showing themselves to me, and the beginnings of answers are showing up. I’m not asking for more. Ease is settling into my bones. Peace is being made with uncertainty.

I’m reminded of that beautiful passage by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

I beg you…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

What about you? How do you live the questions in your life? What do you know about making peace with not knowing?


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  • Erica Holthausen February 4, 2013, 2:55 pm

    I don’t know that I have ever made peace with uncertainty. But at least we are no longer at war. It’s more like a gentle form of détente. We acknowledge each other, uncertainty and I. We can look each other in the eye and say, Yes, I see you. And I hear what you’re saying. I understand.

    My writing practice has helped me better understand uncertainty, though it took me quite some time to get there. I used to see her as stubborn and withholding. She knows I’m struggling. Why doesn’t she help?

    But we have learned to communicate. I now know that she has something to teach me, but I have to have faith in the whispers and faith in her. I’m not very good at that part.

    And so, she continues to push me to grow. Uncertainty is a lot more patient than I am. But once in a while, I’ll write something that surprises me and I catch a glimpse of things to come. These glimpses are uncertainty’s gift to me and they are meant to let me know that I am on the right path. They are meant to encourage me onwards. And so I continue.

    Thank you, Amy, for a truly beautiful post!

    • Amy Kessel February 5, 2013, 8:03 pm

      Thank you for sharing your beautiful relationship here. It sounds like your detente has allowed you the space you need to explore what’s behind the uncertainty, to coax it into the light, to see it in glimpses. This reminds me that try as we might to hurry things along or shape them as we see fit, we really aren’t equipped to do so. There’s something much more powerful that generates “what’s to come”. ~amy