That happened to me when I was flying back and forth to Southern California. I felt crazy sitting out on the tarmac, the Southwest jet uncertain about whether it would go at all. This not knowing was stressing me practically to the point of an emotional break down when someone did lose it, and the plane had to return to the gate.
It was obvious to my friend and me as we talked at the coffee shop that the real pain was in the uncertainty. It’s the not knowing that’s worst of all.
I have just been through a long bout of uncertainty. I and members of the Unitarian Universalist congregation to which I belong have been uncertain about the fate of the interim minister. He did not return from his vacation amid rumors of misconduct that swirled through the church. Eventually, the board of trustees acknowledged that something had happened. Some church members had accused him of something.
Months passed, months during which I did not know what, if anything, had happened or if and when he would return. Despite lacking specifics, I chose to believe that he had done something he should not have done. Rather than not know, I chose to believe his conduct had been despicable. It wasn’t really hard to think ill of him. I had taken my own personal dislike to him when he dismissed my request to speak my truth as a worship associate. He did not have much regard for me; I felt insignificant. Of course, I didn’t like that. I don’t want to be around people who don’t confirm me in the way I would like to be confirmed. At the same time, I saw that I was letting my feeling of being diminished influence my story of what he might or might not have done.
Although I did not wish him grief, once I decided I did not want him to return I no longer suffered the discomfort of personal uncertainty.
Yesterday, six months of official not-knowing ended. The Board of Trustees said lawyers determined the interim minister’s conduct did not sufficiently meet the criteria of the kind of harassment of which he had been accused. So he is coming back. I feel disappointed but at least I am not suffering from uncertainty. Now I have choices. I can leave the church until he has finished his interim ministry and the church calls its new minister or I can stay and … and I don’t know what. But this not-knowing feels different because I have control of what I will do.
Sunday at the church, the congregation sat together. Although the plan had been to meet in small groups and express personal feelings, the meeting did not go that way. The idea of “moving forward” peacefully with snacks on the table brought immediate and angry rejection. “Move forward from what?” congregants asked. Their initial unwillingness to sit quietly and follow sharing guidelines quickly changed to anger directed at the not-knowing everyone experienced.
From that anger grew the congregation’s decision to hear from the people who said they had been harmed. Congregants chose to begin filling in the gaps of what had caused them the discomfort of not knowing for six months or, in some cases, even longer when the last called minister resigned.
As a result, with nothing resolved beyond knowing the interim minister will return, we are all having to choose how to respond. Our initial reaction has been anger. We have yet to decide where we go from here.
Clearly, I have been giving uncertainty a lot of thought. At first all I could do with the feeling was to feel it, be uncomfortable and want it gone. I tried wheedling information from friends on the board of trustees, but they couldn’t and didn’t say anything. This made me angry and I found myself making scapegoats of people I liked because of my suffering.
Wanting to know so as not to be uncertain was large. It took precedent over waiting to learn the facts of the case. Why was that? Apparently, uncertainty undermines my sense of self, and I become dogmatic about my need to know. It is as if my identity depends on my being spared the discomfort of feeling excluded. As soon as I knew what was going on, I regained my sense of humor and felt solid about my identity.
Buddhist Pema Chodron in Living Beautifully With Uncertainty talks about the dangers of living in an identity that requires certainty. She says that we have to busy ourselves trying to rearrange reality because reality doesn’t always conform to our view. At my age, I’ve had many years to construct a fixed identity. The down side is that my self-definition surrounds me like a high wall, and I struggle when that wall cracks, for whatever reason. Uncertainty about the outer translates into inner uncertainty.
Pema says, “When things fall apart that’s our fixed identity crumbling and a cause for celebration.”
That may be the case, but I am not in a hurry to pop the champagne corks just yet. Crumbling is hardly fun. I am pretty sure there will be many more times I will be uncertain. Many more times to practice facing uncertainty with more equanimity.