“Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters of our lives won’t have a title until much later.” – Bob Goff, retired lawyer and founder of the awesome non-profit Restore International
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the whole idea of uncertainty. I’ve had some things come up for me where I’ve realized that I have some patterns around uncertainty that I would like to break, especially when it comes to relationships. It’s not easy – these patterns have been ingrained and reinforced throughout my life and will definitely take a lot of self-work to change. But, as the great Tony Robbins says (OMG he’s so cool), it is much easier to change patterns than it is to change yourself. So I am working on realizing that it is not a fundamental pattern of mine to be afraid of uncertainty in relationships, it is simply a pattern I have created that can definitely be changed.
Why is the uncertain so scary? We want to know the outcomes, to know the consequences, to know which choice is best. I myself have often struggled with the desire to know the outcomes of relationship decisions and go back and forth wondering which will truly be the best option – it can be paralyzing, especially because the outcomes are always going to be uncertain. It’s not that I don’t trust myself to make good decisions, but I overwhelm myself with thinking that whatever I do has to be the best possible decision, forgetting that it is ok not to have all the information and not to know what will necessarily be “best”.
What makes life so beautiful IS the uncertainty. Would you really want to live out a life where you already knew exactly everything that was going to happen and had no power to change it? (ok, maybe you would if you knew it was going to be a freakin awesome life, but still, doesn’t that take some of the fun out of it all?). The whole point of a risk is that we don’t know if it will pay off or not. Certainty takes away the challenge, the excitement, the incentive to work hard because you don’t know if you will succeed or not.
I think the key is not to find things about which we can be certain in our lives, but to train ourselves to be ok with the uncertainty. We try so hard to control things that are uncontrollable and then become heartbroken or shocked when things don’t turn out the way we hoped they would. How silly is that? We know logically that there will be things that come up that are out of control, so why do we try so hard to fight them? Wouldn’t it be better to expect the unexpected?
Having something to lose
One of the scariest things about relationships for many people is having something to lose. If you decide to truly invest time and energy and love into a romantic relationship that you feel is worthwhile, you suddenly have a meaningful relationship that you know could end at any moment. Of course, meaningful friendships can end too, but in my experience, they are much more likely to just fade out on both sides than to end in a fiery and hurtful breakup. And most of us have lots of friendships in our lives at any given time, but only one romantic relationship.
I am finding that what I need to do is not to hold out for a relationship that I think will last forever so that I can feel secure, but to learn to be OK with the idea that all my relationships will eventually end in one way or another. What is important is not the duration of the relationship, but the experience of it and the growth that comes with it. What is important is the fun you have together, the meaningful conversations you share, and the ways in which you push each other and make each other better. I’ve seen people gain huge amounts from relationships that only lasted six months, and I’ve seen people stay in miserable relationships that are no longer serving them long after they should. I think we all probably know someone like that.
I’ve also seen plenty of people get married as a way to decrease uncertainty. We promise to love each other forever, knowing full well that we can’t predict the future. We know that people change, that relationships change, and yet we keep trying to take away the uncertainty by promising to stick together through everything, even when a relationship may not be serving either person anymore. I don’t want to promise someone that I will love them forever – I want to promise them that I will work hard to make our relationship the most awesome, loving, transformative relationship possible. I want to promise to work through difficult situations, to stick by someone’s side when they are struggling, but I do not want to promise to stay in a relationship if neither of us is getting anything out of the relationship anymore, if we have grown apart and it no longer makes sense for us to be romantically involved.
It’s not that I think marriage itself is a terrible thing that nobody should ever do, but I do think a lot of people don’t really put enough time into considering whether or not it is really the right decision for them. A lot of people get to a certain age where they feel like it’s time to “settle down” and then just marry whoever they happen to be dating at that time. To break up and start over when you’re past the age that most people think you should be getting married seems terrifying – it invites a huge amount of uncertainty into your life and I can understand why that is overwhelming.
But I think we could all do with becoming a little more comfortable with the idea of uncertainty. The thing is, even when we try to make our lives more predictable, it’s really only an illusion – there will always be unpredictable events and we cannot control how other people act or feel. We can make promises to each other, but as we’ve seen in today’s society, marriages end all the time as people grow apart and no longer want to be together. I would rather be in a relationship where we make the active choice to be together and love each other each day, rather than staying committed to each other simply because we signed a legal document. I’m not saying that marriages can’t be amazing, loving, satisfying relationships where both partners actively work on the relationship and grow together – I think a lot of them are! But I don’t think marriage simply for the sake of feeling more secure in the relationship is really a good idea, as I’m sure most of you would agree.
Learning to surrender
A great book that I’ve mentioned in this blog before is called “The Surrender Experiment” by Michael Singer. His journey through meditation and spirituality lead him to stop listening so much to his ego and to surrender to the events and people that came into his life, which ultimately lead to some really amazing things. We become so attached to the things we want to happen and so averse to things we don’t want to happen. For some reason, we yearn to regulate events in our lives that we can’t possibly control and then get upset when they don’t go our way. It’s like we are constantly swimming upstream when we could simply turn around and just let the flow of life take us somewhere beautiful.
This doesn’t mean completely relinquishing any control over our lives, but having the wisdom to recognize what is and what isn’t within our sphere of influence. And, if we practice the art of surrender, we will slowly become better and better at not being so thrown off when things don’t go the way we thought they would. We will learn not to be derailed by unexpected events and to see them instead as an opportunity to learn, or try something new, or find out how resilient we are.
So, how do we learn to let go? How do we get better at accepting the events in our lives as they unfold for us? Meditation is definitely a great place to start. If you have never meditated before or it seems daunting, there are so many resources to help you out. Both Headspace and Calm are awesome meditation apps that help you build up your habit, whether it’s 5 minutes a week or an hour each day!
Another way to work on this skill is to simply start observing your mind throughout the day and notice the judgements it makes of things that it likes or doesn’t like. For example, if you walk into a coffee shop and the line is really long, how does your mind automatically react? Odds are, it says something like this “Ugh, this line is so long, it’s going to take forever, I don’t want to have to stand here waiting for ten minutes.” Take a moment each time you notice one of these reactions to just observe it without judgement. Don’t get down on yourself for thinking that way, simply notice it and then consider whether or not that is a helpful way of thinking. If the long line means you won’t have time to wait and have to skip the coffee, then skip it. If you have plenty of time and the line simply means you’ll have to wait a little longer, use that wait in line to practice focusing on your breath and being in the present moment. In fact, you can practice that any time you have to wait in line – meditation and mindfulness can be practiced anywhere at any time. Waiting in line is the perfect opportunity for that.
You could even actively start throwing yourself into uncertain situations and just see what happens! Maybe not a situation like walking down a dark alley at night or going into a funhouse filled with mirrors and clowns where you will definitely get murdered by a guy named Bobo – that’s just being ignorant. But I’m sure you can find little ways to push yourself outside your comfort zone and try some new things where you don’t really know what will happen. Maybe get a friend to go with you to a Star Trek convention, or try an art class for the first time. Try something you never would have thought to do and just go in without expectations and see what happens! Actively inviting the unknown into your life will help you prepare for the inevitable unexpected events that come up (and have higher stakes than producing a bad piece of art or getting weirded out by that guy dressed like Warf).
To sum it all up…
What is it that is really so bad about the unknown? When unexpected events happen in your life, do you accept them with grace and move forward with what you have, or do you automatically feel fear and stress, letting it paralyze you from taking action? Are there ways in which you can begin to let go of your need for certainty, to become aware of the things you can and can’t control and learn to know the difference? Rather than searching for people, jobs, and situations in your life that you can feel certain about, try working instead on being ok with uncertainty, on being ok with the unexpected. Learn to not only be ok with it, but to know that it will happen, that things will come up you can neither predict nor control. It may not be easy at first, but it’s a habit that you have the power to change.