writing on suffering and awakening

Sitting with uncertainty

Money has been short lately. When my bank account is full, I tend to feel a sense of security, pride and satisfaction. That gets stripped away when the balance runs low. It’s an unsettling experience.

Unsettling, but also a real opportunity to examine my own suffering. If I pay attention, I can see that my desire for certainty—to have somewhere solid to stand—causes me a great deal of pain. I don’t know where the money for tomorrow’s bills is going to come from, and the part of me that wants to be in control is shaken by that awareness.

What’s fascinating to realize, though, is that the uncertainty is always there. When more money is coming in, that doesn’t get rid of the not-knowing so much as papers over it. I do feel more secure when depositing a fat paycheck, but in the back of my mind, the water is still draining at a slow drip. The doubt is quieted, but never completely leaves.

But I can ignore it then. That’s more difficult to do right now, as the dripping grows louder. So I find myself looking through the fear at the doubt and wondering, what do I do with this? What do I do with knowing that I have no idea what tomorrow will bring or whether I’ll have what I need to get through it?

Sometimes, I try to distract myself. But often, I want to sit with uncertainty and let it carry me. Doubt is our guide to the truth, after all. I start listing reasons as to why I deserve more money coming in: I’m good at my job, I’m a decent person. You probably know the drill. Then I feel the uncertainty again and realize that none of those stories really count for anything. Despite my best efforts, I can’t move all the pieces around—whether in my mind or in the world—to guarantee the specific outcome I’m looking for.

I want to. We all do. There was a tendency among some of the folks I went to grad school with to value letters after one’s name—to collect degrees and professional certifications as a way of bolstering the sense of self, to protect against uncertainty. Who among us can’t relate to that in one way or another? How many of us spend our lives building a monument to ourselves in the vain hope that it will save us?

There is, however, relief in getting onboard with not knowing. If I can let the bottom drop out and accept that I’ve really got nothing to hold on to, that all my achievements and good intentions are as insubstantial as air, then maybe I become light enough to let the universe gently nudge me along through the lean times and on to greener fields.

For now, I still feel the uncertainty, so the journey continues.

Ian Cooper