UNCERTAINITY IN LIFE
we are uncertain much of our lives. Dealing with the knowledge that a possibility we fear may – or may not – happen is a challenge to our spirit.
It isn’t just the big uncertainties of life and death that face us; it is a succession of small ones. A high school senior applies for college. An adult looking to change jobs types a resume. A new Minister desperately searches for a reading to use in an Installation service. A UU fellowship Stewardship Committee worries over the results of an annual pledge drive. (These are purely hypothetical, of course.)
Our lives are and must be characterized by uncertainty.
Alan Lightman’s brilliant poem in novel form, Einstein’s Dreams, depicts the world as it would be if different rules of time held. In one of these dreams, the people receive glimpses of the future. In some ways, it is a rosy picture. But it takes away the freedom of the present. “Indeed,” he asks, “what sense is there in continuing the present when one has seen the future?”
“Some few,” he writes, “who have witnessed the future do all they can to refute it. A man goes to tend the museum gardens in Neuchâtel after he has seen himself a barrister in Lucerne. A youth embarks on a vigorous sailing voyage with his father after a vision that his father will die soon of heart trouble.... Such people stand on their balconies at twilight and shout that the future can be changed, that thousands of futures are possible. In time, the gardener in Neuchâtel gets tired of his low wages, becomes a barrister in Lucerne. The father dies of his heart, and his son hates himself for not forcing his father to keep to his bed.....”
“Who,” Lightman asks, “would fare better in this world of fitful time?”
If the future were certain, all our freedom of action, all our human inventiveness and creativity, everything we are would be taken away.
And so we are to some extent destined to uncertainty, “fated,” as one observer put it, “to be free.” And it isn’t all hardship. The gifts of uncertainty are as real and present as the perils.
It is uncertainty that gives excitement to new love.
It is uncertainty that gives us cause to connect and reconnect with the people we care about.
It is uncertainty that gives rise to human creativity, to risk, to adventure, to philosophy, to play.
Without uncertainty, there is no hope, only what must be. And this is good, because nobody can do away with uncertainty.
The question becomes how we deal with uncertainty, especially the kind of uncertainty that makes us afraid. How do we, as simple but ever-so complicated human beings, live and move and grow in this uncertain world?
Last week Alida DeCoster asked “Now which way do we go?” a question uttered many times in the uncertainty of life. She spoke of making choices, of serendipity, of a certain kind of trust.
My question this week is not how we make choices, but how we maintain our spirits when it seems there is no choice to make – when we must sit and wait, and be as patient as we know how to be, as events unfold for good or for ill. How do we cope with the fear, the worry, the expectation?
Today many of us are afraid because of the direction of our economy. Some fear the loss of a job, others the loss of income from investments, or from a dwindling customer base in a small business. We don’t know what will happen, and so we try to live carefully but courageously in uncertainty.
Events are no less or more certain than they were three years ago, but the recession of the past two years has affected our outlook, and our uncertainty today tends to be characterized by a greater fear.
What holds us and gives us strength through it all?
The theologian Howard Thurman wrote of the various threads he held in his hand. “The threads go many ways,” he writes, “linking my life with other lives.”
“One thread comes from a life that is sick; it is taut with anguish
And always there is the lurking fear that the life will snap.
I hold it tenderly. I must not let it go....
One thread comes from a high flying kite;
It quivers with the mighty current of fierce and holy dreaming
Invading the common day with far-off places and visions bright....
One thread comes from the failing hands of an old, old friend....
One thread is but a tangled mass that won’t come right.....”
But then, he says, there is another thread. It is a strange thread – a steady thread.
“When I am lost, I pull it hard and find my way....
When the waste places of my spirit appear in arid confusion,
the thread becomes a channel of newness of life.”
For Thurman, it was God that held the other end of that steady thread. It was a sense of divine love that did not erase or overshadow the uncertainty of the other threads, did not solve the problems or make them any less real; it simply manifested as a presence – one thread that was steady.
Your steady thread may be the presence of God, but it also may be a faith in the spirit of life. Your steady thread may be your own sense of integrity, or your certain knowledge of the interconnections between you and the universe. Your steady thread may be the sureness of love in the world.
When you are in that in-between place, that place of wondering and not-knowing and worrying and fearing, what is your steady thread?
When you are in an place of excitement and possibility and anticipation of a yet uncertain joy, what steady thread keeps you grounded?
When you have lost your way, what reminds you that the way is not one, it is not lost – that with the loss of old dreams comes the potential of new ones?
I suspect that there are many steady threads, and each of these has many names. Some threads are less steady than others, but they are nevertheless solid enough to depend upon. Human love can be a steady thread in the face of uncertainty. The presence of a spiritual community can be the steady thread – and by this I do not only mean a specifically religious community. I mean any community in which participants care for one another, help one another grow, celebrate and mourn together, and seek meaning in life. Unitarian Universalists know as well as any others that there is a world of spirituality outside the bounds of organized religion and conventional theology. Anyone, no matter what their beliefs or religious practices, can find a steady thread.
When my late stepmother, the Reverend Cary Kauffman, was in the last year of her life, she preached a sermon on “Humanists in Foxholes.” In the sermon she talked about her ongoing struggles with cancer and the Humanist Unitarian Universalism that gave her comfort and was, although it is not a term she used, a steady thread. “My beliefs in continuous revelation and in our capacity for love, our creativity, and our connectedness to ourselves, to others, and to the natural world open wide vistas for me. They help me to be present for myself and for others. They help me ‘to allow my living to open me – to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a song.’”
For her it was a Unitarian Universalist faith that held steady.
And you can be the steady thread for another.
The power of Howard Thurman’s image was not in anything the thread did, especially, or didn’t do – it was in the simple fact of the thread’s presence. You can be that presence to another in need. You don’t have to fix anything, solve anything, heal anything or be anything other than yourself, a human being who cares enough to be present.
The citizens of the Washington, DC area found comfort in phone calls from friends and relatives in other parts of the country who said, “I’m thinking about you. I want to know you’re okay, and I want you to know I love you.” It’s astounding how much difference those phone calls made to hundreds of thousands of people. And millions more were comforted simply in the knowledge that those relationships were there, and it didn’t matter whether they were called or not. They were loved.
The same is true in other uncertain situations. It’s the presence itself that makes the difference, not any particular act of kindness. Indeed, often anything more than that presence – a phone call, visit, or card – might be too much. If we tried to solve things we would with good intentions risk taking away what little control remains to someone in a very disempowering uncertainty.
Uncertainty isn’t a problem to be solved; it is a reality to be lived through. It is peace that needs to be made with the processes of life.
And presence itself is enough. Your presence may be someone’s steady thread, or it may remind them of the thread that had gotten lost in the jumble of confusion and worry – the spiritual thread, whether divine or natural, at the core of their being.
Few of us know for certain what our steady thread will be in a crisis – after all, we’re talking about uncertainty here. But our ability to cope with uncertainty will be strengthened if we have at least given it some thought.
Maybe one steady thread is simply the knowledge that life is uncertain, that the joyful as well as the painful awaits us, and that myriad possibilities await. And while bad things happen, so do good things, and our joy and sense of accomplishment is heightened by the uncertainty of it all.
With uncertainty comes hope and the need for love and the beauty of the unexpected. With a steadying presence comes comfort and warmth and peace. With community it all comes together - spirit and hope, the ability to hold others and be held even in the most chaotic time. And we remind one another that the challenge of uncertainty is the gift of human freedom, so that we may rise from the paralysis of unknowing, rest easy in peace, and come at last to celebrate the mystery.
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.